The Fifth Season (Broken Earth), by N. K. Jemisin
This novel won the 2016 Hugo Awards and its sequel, The Obelisk Gate, won again in 2017. The third book, The Stone Sky, is due August of 2017.
“For all those who have to fight for the respect that everyone else is given without question” is the book’s opening dedication. The book is set on a planet with a single large continent called The Stillness. The moon no longer circles, and the planet itself regularly shifts its surface showing great splits that bring volcanoes or earthquakes that wipe out coastal cities with tsunamis. When things get far out of control events called Seasons occur when the weather changes and food becomes scarce. Most of these last just a few years but some are near extinction events.
Essun is the central character. Her original name is Damaya and she was born an “orogene”. These are humans who have the power to use their minds to cause changes in the earth but they’re also feared by those who don’t have the power. Orogenes are known to create large frozen areas, or can open the earth to let it swallow others when they’re angry. Families will often kill or abandon them, or other people in their “comms” (communities) will do it for them. Now and then one is found by a Guardian, who will take the child to a place called the Fulcrum, where orogenes are trained. For each test passed they’ll be awarded a ring, but the discipline is fierce.
Essun is brought into this atmosphere, and much of the book focuses on her training in the bizarre school. Once trained the orogenes are contracted out to comms to repair the earth or make beneficial changes. On one of these trips Essun is sent to a coastal city with a 10-ring orogene named Alabaster. He has extensive power, enough to stop volcanoes, and can use the powers of other orogenes to increase his own.
This pattern of being feared and hated while still being needed is a theme throughout the book. The Guardians are nearly a separate race, with the power to kill orogenes at a touch, and they are used by the Leadership caste to control the orogenes.
Essun and Alabaster do their work at the coastal city, but while they do Essun uncovers a huge crystal obelisk buried under the harbor they’ve been hired to clear. Inside is a creature known as a Stone eater, a different race made of stone but with the power to flow through rock. This causes Leadership to send a Guardian to eliminate Essun and Alabaster. They escape to an island where they both fall in love with the head of a pirate clan.
This is about as short a summary as I can give for this intricate novel. The narrative is lyrical and moves between a third person narrative and a second-person singular (“you move forward slowly”). It also leaves out a ton of characters but gives a general outline.
The writing can be almost hypnotic at times in a unique story with undertones of race, survival, and honoring the earth but without slap-in-the-face messaging. Essun is an outcast even among other orogenes in her school, and her observations about the world guide the narrative vision. Despite her being withdrawn, Alabaster sees her as someone who can match or exceed his abilities.
Despite the rhythmic pace of the prose it’s a book with several tense, emotional, and erotic moments. The changes in perspective, while following a single character, can be a bit jarring but also add a subtle push to the story and gives it even more depth.
The prose and arc are reminiscent of Octavia Butler or Ursula K. Le Guin. This ain’t your typical space opera and it almost touches on fantasy but without the usual tropes. It’s worth diving into and is a really phenomenal read.