The Fifth Season: The Broken Earth Book One by N. K. Jemisin (New York: Orbit Books, 2015. 512 pp)
N. K. Jemisin is the first author in the genre’s history to win three consecutive Best Novel Hugo awards, all for her Broken Earth Trilogy. Her work has also won the Nebula, Locus, and Goodreads Choice awards. She is currently a reviewer for the New York Times Book Review, and she has been an instructor for the Clarion and Clarion West writing workshops.
It snowed recently. The kids stayed home for many days. We had cabin fever.
End of short story.
But for the purpose of this review, let’s talk about weather and climate. Too often, commentary about the veracity of the global climate trajectory becomes conflated with the weather. Too cold equals proof against global warming. Too hot equals global warming has happened and it’s over.
With this hyper focus on the variations of weather, we don’t often discuss the global system upon which the climate operates. The holocene epoch governs the habitable safe zone upon which humanity has built society during its successful run as the dominant species on this planet. Unfortunately, we have no guarantee of a continued safe and habitable planet. That which is does not mean that which will be. Most of the scientists ringing the alarm bell on climate change ring it because of their concerns over the system as a whole, because if it shifts drastically and irrevocably, humanity is in existential trouble.
With The Fifth Season, N. K. Jemisin leverages the premise of an irrevocably altered world to tell a new kind of story in the fantasy genre.
Path Number One
The narrative follows three paths. The first outlines a bereaved mother, mourning the murder of her son at the hands of her husband. Determined for vengeance, she sets a path toward the capital, taking up a mysterious boy as a companion on her way.
Path Number Two
The second path unpacks the coming-of-age story for a young girl. Having discovered orogeny—her gift or curse depending on how you look at it—she gets shipped to the capital to hone her craft safely under the watchful eye of her guardian. Orogeny, you see, is the ability to control the earth’s energy around you. Skilled orogenes can concentrate that energy and use it as a weapon, making them very dangerous if they aren’t controlled.
“Orogeny is a strange equation. Take movement and warmth and life from your surroundings, amplify it by some indefinable process of concentration or catalysis or semi-predictable chance, push movement and warmth and death from the earth” (77).
Path Number Three
And in the third, an established orogene receives orders to mate with the most talented orogene in the Fulcrum, the order of orogenes. Together, the pair go on a mission to help restore a shopping lane at a coastal city. When the two arrive, they discover more mysterious issues at play. Skilled orogenes can do amazing things:
“At a flick of her will, the bedrock column extracts itself from the attack ship’s hull—leaving a ten-foot hole near the stern. It begins sinking immediately, tipping upward as it takes on water. Then, dragging more strength from the ocean surface and raising fog enough to obscure sight for miles, Syenite shifts the column to aim at the cargo vessel’s keel. A quick thrust up, a quicker withdrawal. Like stabbing someone to death with a poniard. The ship’s hull cracks like an egg, and after a moment splits into two halves. It’s done” (378-379).
A Good Story
While Jemisin masterfully plots these narratives, the world building in The Fifth Season is even more impressive. Positioning “fifth seasons” as extended periods of climate disarray that wipe out most of humanity, she conjures a society more aligned with the Stone Age than the Industrial Age. And to add elements of fantasy, orogenes and stoneaters provide that otherworldly element to a story situated on earth. As a result, the story feels futuristic, archaic, and relevant.
Most art in our current moment stands to address climate change in order to resonant as deeply in our collective consciousness. With The Fifth Season, N. K. Jemisin does just that.