N.K. Jemisin, The Broken Earth, Orbit.
There aren't many novels that have received the Hugo Award and that I've really liked. But The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin grabbed me from the first pages and I couldn't leave it until I had reached the end.
This review has been initially published in October 2016 and substantially updated and enriched in August 2017 after I've finished reading The Stone Sky. It nonetheless remains spoiler free.
The Earth (probably our Earth), after eons of earthquakes and tsunamis, have now only a super continent. Humans live together in communities where each is assigned to a caste according to their aptitudes, and all hope they won't live during a Season, a period following a cataclysm where life is barely possible.
One day, "You", a second person narrator, feel a huge earthquake coming from the south, going through the whole continent. But "You" are orogene, a rare breed of humans with the strange ability to master geology. "You" protect your village so that your children are safe. Then "You" come back home where you find that your son has been beaten to death by your husband and your daughter has disappeared.
Another thread follows Damaya, a young girl whose parents have realised she is orogene. But orogenes are feared and hated by the human communities. Damaya is given to Schaffa, a Guardian, who will bring her to Yumenes, the imperial city, where she will receive an education in the Fulcrum with other young orogenes so that her powers are used for the empire.
A last thread follows Syenite, a young orogene woman who has been educated by the Fulcrum and who is sent on a mission in a coastal town, under the orders of another orogene, much more powerful than she is and that she doesn't like.
The second person narrative technique isn't new (see the French Nouveau Roman, If by a winternight a traveller... by Italo Calvino, and in scifi, among others, the series Halting State by Charlie Stross). But Jemisin uses it with a remarkable effect. And if there's a "You", there has to be an "I"...
All the characters are remarkably drawn, with nuances, you see why they evolve and how, each very intricate, and sometimes very raw in their pain and their grief. The story will often focus on mother / daughter relationships, but it's a fraught relationship, based on hardships and the difficulty to understand, reach for and work with each other. Though such a relationship as a mother/daughter relationship is so particular to each person that it may not work for some readers.
To any alert reader, some things will be obvious very quickly in The Fifth Season, but it isn't any mystery that holds The Broken Earth trilogy together.
Though the first two volumes are very much a bewilderment at how rich and fascinating a world Jemisin has created, the third is definitely past "just" that. The themes of empowerment, of social justice, of slavery, that existed in the first two volumes and that were already very striking, are even more dialed up and deliver a strong and powerful message to the current Western world that you can't ignore (unless you're really stupid and choose to be blind - please leave my blog if you are, thanks), sometimes with hints of the sassiness and anger you could find in Angelou's poetry:
They're afraid because we exist (...) There's nothing we did to provoke their fear, other than exist. There's nothing we can do to earn their approval, except stop existing - so we can either die like they want, or laugh at their cowardice and go on with our lives.
(The Stone Sky.)
The Broken Earth is a striking story and it is served with a beautiful prose that plays with words, creates words. Though it will rely on the oldest of fantasy tropes, it is also very much steeped in geology, and this choice gave to Jemisin's tale a unique angle.
The Fifth Season really deserved its Hugo and so did the second volume, The Obelisk Gate. It is an outstanding work of fantasy, something so well told and with such world building, I'd be amazed if we still don't talk about in 20 or 30 years. But like any great fantasy tale, it so much more than that.
Not all fighters use knives, after all, says a character in The Stone Sky. Jemisin uses words and she fights with this story for a better world. The Broken Earth trilogy is most certainly a winning strike.
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All reviews are spoiler free unless explicitly stated otherwise.
I only review stories I have liked even if my opinion may be nuanced. It doesn't apply for the "Novels published before 1978" series of blog posts.
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