N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season is more intriguing than satisfying. But that’s fine by me, because when I say it’s intriguing, I mean it’s really intriguing.
The first two lines hint that this is a story that will play with form: “Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we? Get it over with and move on to more interesting things.” That wry tone carries through the prologue, turning what could be a bald infodump into a winking overview of the setting. (It’s also a fun poke at the type of prologue that does dump a ton of backstory on the reader. “None of these places or people matter, by the way,” the narrator says after laying out a few more things. “I simply point them out for context.”)
The experimentation doesn’t stop there. The first few chapters set up multiple timelines and points of view. Damaya and Syen’s are told in third person and Essun’s in second, which is an interesting choice. You can read it as Essun reacting to a horrific tragedy by stepping outside herself, or the narrator speaking directly to Essun. Or, if your attention wanders, you might refocus and think the narrator is talking to you for a moment. This occasionally feels like an accusation: “You aren’t just inflicting death on your fellow villagers, of course. A bird perched on a nearby fence falls over frozen, too … Death was always here. Death is you.”
Throughout, we’re introduced to a unique world. Our world, it seems: Essun and the others call it Earth. But something happened to break it, destabilizing its core and leading to near-constant geologic activity. The worst of this can set off volcanic blasts that lead to “Fifth Seasons,” prolonged winters that last years or centuries. These Seasons also tend to trigger additional side effects: acid rain, crop-killing fungal blooms, and so on.
Humanity has survived these mini-apocalypses by establishing rules known as “stonelore” that dictate how to prepare for and weather such events. But the costs are often high. The Earth is littered with “deadciv” ruins and artifacts, such as floating obelisks. Some technologies, like hydroelectricity, are still understood, but others, like gunpowder, have only recently been rediscovered. Most people are divided into strict castes. On the fantasy side of things, there’s an intricate magic system. Non-humans make occasional appearances, and modified humans also pop up.
The Fifth Season isn’t self-contained, though. The conclusion fulfills few goals. Damaya and Syen never really have any beyond survival anyway; Essun’s quest for vengeance and closure remains open. Other questions remain unanswered too. This first book in the Broken Earth series is mostly about building the world and its characters while developing a crisis the subsequent books will (presumably) resolve.
If it weren’t all so skillfully done, I might have come away feeling a bit cheated. But I’m happy to keep going—Jemisin’s earned my trust. What a vision.