The Fifth Season (Broken Earth Trilogy) by N.K. Jemisin

Werthead

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The Fifth Season

In a remote future, the Earth's landmasses have been fused together into a supercontinent called the Stillness. The geological catastrophe which caused this event still haunts the planet, with frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions causing devastation across thousands of miles in titanic disasters known as Fifth Seasons. Many civilisations have risen and fallen, with the world currently dominated by the Sanze Empire from its grand capital of Yumenes.

A new Fifth Season has arrived, heralded by the opening of a vast volcanic rift below Yumenes. Chaos grips the Stillness as thousands takes to the roads to flee the devastation. Among them is Essun, an orogene, one who can use the powers of the earth to her own ends. Her son has been murdered by her husband, who has fled with their daughter. Essun sets out to find them, as all around her the world begins to end.

There is a long and honourable tradition of genre fiction set at the end of the world, when confused humans try to live their lives in the shadow of earlier, more ancient and glorious civilisations. Jack Vance arguably became its first champion, with his 1950 novel The Dying Earth and three sequels. This accomplished, erudite, witty yet melancholy series gave the subgenre of fiction its name and directly inspired arguably its most famous work: The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe, sometimes cited as the greatest work of science fiction or fantasy ever written. More recently the Dying Earth subgenre has gained increased fame from Monte Cook's excellent Numenera RPG setting (and its video game spin off, Torment: Tides of Numenera).

N.K. Jemisin's sixth novel fits nicely into this genre: it is, at the very least, tens of thousands of years in the future (possibly millions). Strange obelisks float in the sky for unknown purposes. The ruins of ancient, baffling civilisations lie everywhere. Recurring geological catastrophes seek to destroy humanity, but powerful humans known as orogenes seek to defy them. But the same orogenes who can stop the quakes can make them vastly worse, so other humans - "Guardians" - are appointed to guard them and, if necessary, kill them if it looks like they are going to be come a danger themselves. It's a world of terrible inequality, where people are born into castes and forced to stay there for their entire lives. Selective breeding experiments are commonplace, and orogenes are treated like animals by those who fear their power.

The Fifth Season is thus a novel about many things: humanity and bigotry, history and myth, life and death, and the unquenchable desire of human beings to survive and seek happiness. It's a book that's received a lot of critical acclaim, with the trilogy it opens winning no less than three Hugo Awards and a score of other awards. This acclaim and the book's literary qualities have, paradoxically, put off a lot of readers who prefer their fantasy more straightforward and predictable.

Which is a shame because The Fifth Season is also a rollicking good epic fantasy novel. There's massive and awe-inspiring displays of apparently-magical power. The "magic system" is given consistent rules and treated with as much respect and seriousness as in any Brandon Sanderson book. The worldbuilding is vigorous, original and well-thought-out. There's even pirates, and some nice action scenes on the high seas. There's moments of strange alienation at the discovery of awe-inspiring remnants of earlier ages, and moments of horror at some of the creatures and powers unleashed by the same.

The book's structure is also innovative: the narrative is split into three strands, and we follow each strand with a different character at the centre of it. Each strand is set in a different time period, and as the book continues the characters and time periods converge until the book's ending results in a moment of catharsis: less of a twist ending and more one of simple revelation that makes what you've been reading make sense. Each strand is also told in a different writing style (moving from second-person/present-tense to third-person/past-tense to third-person/present-tense) which I expected to dislike, but instead it worked extremely well. The different writing style acts as a consistent reminder of what part of the story and the timeframe you are reading at any given moment, and transitions did not jar at all.

It helps that Jemisin is one of the stronger prose-writers in modern SFF, consistently nailing great moments of dialogue and deploying formidable powers of description. The book's themes are big ones, taking in ecological and environmental issues, gender relations, sexuality (especially interesting when some of the far-future humans are evolved in some unexpected manners) and inequality, but the book never remotely becomes preachy or bogged down in some semantic political argument. Everything services the world and the story that Jemisin has created.

The book also has pace. This book is 450 pages of relatively big type, and the sequel is even shorter. This modest page count helps move the story along at a brisk clip, with the narrative rotating between its three POV characters like a well-oiled machine, until the book brings its various strands together in a satisfying manner that sets the scene perfectly for the sequel, The Obelisk Gate.

The Fifth Season (*****) is one of the best opening volumes to a science fiction or fantasy trilogy of the past few years, and is strongly recommended.
 
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picklematrix

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#2
I've wanted to read Jemisins books for a while now. Might bump her to the front of my TBR pile, once i've finished the doorstopper i'm reading now.
I've become very of books that keep up a decent pace and a more modest page count, like this series seems to.
 

Werthead

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I've wanted to read Jemisins books for a while now. Might bump her to the front of my TBR pile, once i've finished the doorstopper i'm reading now.
I've become very of books that keep up a decent pace and a more modest page count, like this series seems to.
Yup, the page count is encouragingly low. The font size is also impressively large, so the pages fly by pretty quick. I think the combined page count of the entire trilogy is significantly less than a single epic fantasy novel by say Brandon Sanderson or Steven Erikson.
 

picklematrix

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#6
I'm in the middle of a Sanderson right now. Its a fantastic quality book, but it feels like a while since I read something else!
 

psikeyhackr

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#7
I am half way through Obelisk Gate. I see why someone called this series "misery porn". I have taken a break.
 

Werthead

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#8
The Obelisk Gate

A new Fifth Season has fallen on the world, the worst one in history. It may last a thousand years and forever end what vestiges of civilisation remain in the Stillness. One orogene, battered and dying, has a plan to end the Season and indeed all of the Seasons: to recapture the Moon, which was moved out of its traditional orbit more than a thousand generations ago, unbalancing the world. Recapturing the Moon requires that Essun find and harness the powers of the Obelisk Gate. But this may be harder than she thought, as enemies are moving against her new-found home and, in the distant south, her daughter discovers that she herself has an unforeseen destiny.

The Obelisk Gate is the sequel to the excellent The Fifth Season and the middle volume of the Broken Earth trilogy, N.K. Jemisin's critically-acclaimed take on the venerable Dying Earth subgenre. The Fifth Season was a highly accomplished novel, describing a brand new world with skill and intelligence and blending together elements of fantasy, post-apocalyptic fiction and a dash of the weird to create something compelling and interesting.

The Fifth Season was also helped by its structure,
in which we follow the same character at three different points in her life. The story rotated through each version of the character in term, gradually giving the readers all the pieces to assemble the full narrative. It was a great literary conceit, well-conceived and executed, which allowed the reader to really get to grips with the character.

The Obelisk Gate can't use the same structure, so instead adapts it by moving between Essun's story and that of her daughter Nassun. Whilst the first book was an extended road trip, the second book alternates between Essun's static story and Nassun's long journey across thousands of miles into the far south. This changes things up nicely and means that Essun, now a guest of the community of Castrima, has to actually stay put, learn what's going on from Alabaster and help defend the community.

It does mean a slightly more uneven book than The Fifth Season. Not actually a huge amount happens in this novel, especially for Essun's storyline, and some implausibility creeps in when you realise she is spending months and months hanging around in Castrima (to allow Nassun to travel many, many thousands of miles from almost the equator into the Antarctic region) but doesn't seem to really learn a lot of new information despite Alabaster being right there. That said, there is quite a decent amount of character building and atmosphere here and Castrima, a subterranean city suspended in a giant geode, is a terrific piece of worldbuilding.

Nassun's storyline is more dynamic and disturbing, as her father tries to take her to safety but instead brings her into an even more dangerous and unstable situation, with her own burgeoning powers to contend with. There's a dark mirror here to Essun's childhood upbringing as related in the previous novel, with the feeling that Nassun is what Essun could have become if she was indulged more instead of tortured.

The result is a sequel which expands on the world and the story but, in a common failing of middle volumes of trilogies, can't quite match the relentless pace and sense of discovery from the first book. There's a lot of introspection in this novel which is beautifully written, but risks redundancy later on. However, the book ends with an explosive confrontation between Castrima and a rival community which once again shakes things up and leaves them in an interesting place for the final book in the series to pick up on.

The Obelisk Gate (****½) is a readable and strong sequel to The Fifth Season, if a slightly less original and relentless one. It is available now in the UK and USA. The story concludes in The Stone Sky.
 
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althea

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#9
An excellent review,meaning you have whetted my appetite for this writer and this book in particular.
I shall let Santa know I would like it for that upcoming festivity.:)
 

Werthead

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#10
The Stone Sky

The world is reeling under the advent of a new Fifth Season, one that threatens to destroy civilisation altogether. Essun and her daughter Nassun are both aware that the return of the long-lost Moon may help resolve the crisis, but their goals are diametrically opposed. With Essun's community recovering from a brutal military confrontation and Nassun's mentor critically ill, both will have to overcome great obstacles to reach their goal...and each other.

Concluding a trilogy when the first two volumes have been acclaimed as the finest fantasy novels of the decade, won a multitude of awards and been optioned for television is a bit of an undertaking, but one that N.K. Jemisin has pulled off with an aplomb. The Stone Sky concludes the Broken Earth trilogy, a post-apocalyptic fantasy of the "Dying Earth" school, set in the far future when the world has become a stranger place where the lines between sorcery, magic and science have become blurred by tens of thousands of years of progress.

The previous volume in the series, The Obelisk Gate, left our characters in difficult predicaments. The Stone Sky soon sets them on their way to a final confrontation where the fate of the world will be decided. So far, so standard. But The Stone Sky isn't your standard fantasy novel. The final confrontation is a clash of ideas and perspectives informed by the well-developed characters and their experiences, not a rote clash of armies (which arguably we got in The Obelisk Gate anyway).

Instead, The Stone Sky is a surprisingly quiet novel. The principle action unfolds through conversations between the characters and through lengthy flashback sequences revealing how the Earth lost the Moon in the first place and how the highly advanced civilisation which caused the Shattering fell from grace. Woven through this is a theme of intolerance: the orogenes of the present-day story being outcast and persecuted for being Other, but also used for their power. This is echoed by events in the flashback story, where entire races are enslaved and persecuted out of fear, but then used for their power.

The Stone Sky, as with the rest of the trilogy, explores powerful themes of disempowerment, slavery and fear of the unknown, but also wraps an interesting and gripping narrative, all built on some very accomplished worldbuilding. This mix of atmosphere, character, theme and story is excellently-handled and recalls the best work of Ursula K. Le Guin: a book where all of the individual pieces that went into making it complement one another and deliver a novel that is far more than the some of its parts.

The novel is not quite perfect. Like The Obelisk Gate, the pace sags on occasion and this is made more noticeable by the lengthy flashbacks to the Shattering. These flashbacks are interesting and beautifully-written, but only reveal a moderate amount of new information not previously given in dialogue. The book isn't quite the equal of The Fifth Season in its pacing and story structure, although the difference is not too egregious.

Overall, The Stone Sky (****½) ends one of the finest fantasy series of recent years in final form, wrong-footing expectations and building on the accomplishments of the first two books in the series.
 

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