RogerBW's Blog

The Fifth Season, N K Jemisin 11 October 2016

2015 science-fantasy. The world known as the Stillness is wracked by tectonic activity; only the earth-shapers, the orogenes, can hold things together. So naturally they are slaves.

The clear ancestor of this book is Barbara Hambly's work – practically everything by her, and when I asked her once she said that she simply thought it inevitable: in any world where they exist, magicians must become the despised underclass, because however powerful they are, they're a minority.

However, these magicians are written by someone who's actually been part of a despised underclass, and that immediately makes the narrative more effective. (Though when it becomes clear that the orogenes, that being the polite term for them, are known more rudely as "roggas" – yes, OK, we get it.)

There are three narratives: Damaya, a young orogene child discovered and taken from her village for training at the Fulcrum; Syenite, a junior orogene sent on a supposedly easy mission; and (in second person narration) Essun, an orogene passing as a normal person, whose husband has just beaten her young son to death for showing orogene powers. Yeah, it's that sort of book, and when one of the stories seems to be getting grim we switch to another that's even grimmer. (Node maintainers. I say no more.)

But that's not what the book's about; it's about the way in which an underclass can be not only suppressed but taught to believe that it should be an underclass, that it's too dangerous to let it make its own decisions, that it needs its Guardians to look after it and tell it what to do and kill it when it goes wrong, that it should be grateful it has that much.

And it's a book about a world coming to its end, as one of those orogenes opens the narrative by destroying the biggest city and centre of civilisation; every few hundred years there have been Fifth Seasons, various types of catastrophe, and the society is structured so that people know they should store food, keep a "runny-sack" prepared, and be ready to wait it out somewhere safe. But this one is going to be bigger and longer than ever before, and all of them are going to die.

The world-building, literally, is excellent: there's deep history leading to a patchwork of surviving technology (no guns, but electric light; no metal knives, but glass that holds an edge), and the fact that the history can't be known accurately thanks to suppression and re-writing is itself an historical artefact.

And just as that's getting good I stumble over a clunking bit of Message, like the transgendered character who seems just to be there to point out that the narrator doesn't regard such things as in any way remarkable (and even that character's family didn't particularly object, except insofar as it meant they couldn't marry her off).

It's a solidly good read, but a highly uncomfortable one; some of that's deliberate and works well, but for me other parts just felt heavy-handed. (And there's no actual conclusion here; To Be Continued.) Was it worth it, and am I going to continue with the series? Ask me again in six months. I'm glad I don't put ratings on these reviews. Followed by The Obelisk Gate.

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Series: The Broken Earth | Next in series: The Obelisk Gate

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