23 May 2017

Hugos 2017 [Prelude]: The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

Quick cross-link: my review of the Doctor Who spin-off The New Counter Measures: Series One was posted to USF today.

Trade paperback, 498 pages
Published 2015

Acquired and read May 2017
The Broken Earth, Book One: The Fifth Season
by N. K. Jemisin

Like last week's Saga, Book One, I'm reading this not because it's nominated for the 2017 Hugos (in fact, it won the 2016 Hugo for Best Novel), but because a follow-up volume in the same series is nominated. A lot of this year's Hugo nominees are later volumes in series, which leaves me with a lot to read!

In Rhetorics of Fantasy, Farah Mendlesohn coins a corollary to Clarke's Third Law: "Any sufficiently immersive fantasy is indistinguishable from science fiction" (62). The Broken Earth is definitely an embodiment of that idea. Taking place on a world with a dangerously active geology (volcanic eruptions potent enough to cause a "fifth season," i.e., a winter of more than six months, occur every couple centuries, meaning no civilization lasts very long) and where orogenes (think earthbenders from Avatar) are both feared and needed for their power to manipulate Father Earth, Jemisin takes these seemingly fantastic premises and follows them through to their logical conclusions. The worldbuilding is the real strength of this novel-- from language to culture, the Stillness (the ironic name of the continent) feels like a real place, with a politics and history and racial dynamics all its own. There's so much packed in here, so many cool but also dark ideas about how orogenes would be perceived, and how society would evolve to protect itself from the threat of fifth seasons.

It's beautifully told, too, an elevated style that sometimes gets oddly casual, but Jemisin pulls it off. The book follows three parallel narratives, the journeys of three different orogenes, each reacting to titanic events. Jemisin's handling of language is her handling of character, and also her handling of cruelty: in many ways, the apocalyptic world of The Fifth Season is just our own, in all the worse ways. Sometimes, though I got a little lost in the style, having to reread significant passages for comprehension a little too much, and I was a little frustrated that The Fifth Season doesn't stand alone in any sense. The Broken Earth is definitely not multiple stories in a series, but one big story; the end of the book doesn't resolve anything, but introduces more complications. Still, I am excited to read book two, The Obelisk Gate, in a few weeks, and the end portends much.

Next Week: The most rational of futures discovers a miracle in Too Like the Lightning!

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