N K Jemisin‘s Hugo winning novel The Fifth Season (the first in the Broken Earth series) is a tour de force about the marginalised, the exploited and the abused.
In Jemisin’s world, humanity lives on a continent riven by regular geological events. An earthquake, a volcanic eruption or something similar can result in a ‘Fifth Season’, where the natural flow of the seasons is disrupted for a period of time. Humanity survives these episodes through rigid adherence to survivalist doctrine ( “stonelore”), the protection of communities and the stockpiling of supplies.
A Fifth Season can be civilisation-ending, returning humanity back to primitive subsistence living, surrounded by the relics of predecessor civilisations. But the Sanzed Empire has survived a number of these seasons. It has done so through the ruthless exploitation of orogones: a group of people with the skill to control and manipulate geological events. Because of the threat they pose, those with the talent live apart in the Fulcrum. Treated as a near-slave class and widely despised, they live a strictly controlled existence, their talents used to maintain and preserve the Sanzed Empire.
The Fifth Season is a braided novel, following three interconnecting storylines that slowly converge. Essun is an orogene who lives in hiding in a remote village, concealing her power. She sees her son murdered and her daughter stolen by her husband. In the wake of a major geological event that is bringing on a new Fifth Season she goes in search of her daughter. Syenite is a young orogene, still in training and working for the Empire. She is sent on a mission to clear coral from a harbour with Alabaster, an older, more powerful and much more experienced orogene. She is expected to conceive a child with him during that mission, as part of the Fulcrum’s breeding programme. And Damaya is a young child. As a newly discovered feral orogene she is taken from her family to the Fulcrum to begin her training.
Told from the point of view of the orogenes, this is a story about the oppressed and what can happen when they are pushed beyond breaking point. Normally in fantasy fiction the conflict is black and white, with a Great Evil being responsible for the world-threatening event our heroes are set to tackle. But in Jemisin’s novel, the geological event Essun is fleeing was an act of terrorism triggered by one of their number to end the centuries of abuse the orogenes have suffered at the hands of the Sanzed Empire. And for all that it is bringing armageddon to Sanzed we cannot but come to be sympathetic with that action. The emotional and physical abuse that Damaya experiences as she leaves her fearful family is intensely chilling, as is the complicity of many orogenes in the self-governing structures of the Fulcrum that control and restrict orogenes. Jemisin leaves the reader in no doubt about the risk and danger of the geological events threatening her world, but she is also clear that the threat does not justify the appalling treatment of those with the skill to neutralise it.
Jemisin builds a rich world and uses it to tell a genre-busting story that gives us a glimpse of how the world could be different if only we had the courage to stand against prejudice and value the talents and contribution of us all.
Goodreads rating: 5*