Sunday, 6 September 2015

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit Books)

I review N.K. Jemisin’s brilliant The Fifth Season, the first book in The Broken Earth epic fantasy series from Orbit Books, published in August 2015 and currently available to buy in the UK and the US.

This is the way the world ends. Again.

Three terrible things happen in a single day. Essun, a woman living an ordinary life in a small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Meanwhile, mighty Sanze -- the world-spanning empire whose innovations have been civilization's bedrock for a thousand years -- collapses as most of its citizens are murdered to serve a madman's vengeance. And worst of all, across the heart of the vast continent known as the Stillness, a great red rift has been torn into the heart of the earth, spewing ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.

Now Essun must pursue the wreckage of her family through a deadly, dying land. Without sunlight, clean water, or arable land, and with limited stockpiles of supplies, there will be war all across the Stillness: a battle royale of nations not for power or territory, but simply for the basic resources necessary to get through the long dark night. Essun does not care if the world falls apart around her. She'll break it herself, if she must, to save her daughter.

N.K. Jemisin is one of those authors who I’ve heard a lot about but never actually read, and The Fifth Season presented me with the perfect opportunity to check out her latest release as it was the first entry in the series, and I was looking for something to read whilst I was in France, and as it turned out, I was really glad I snapped up this book, because it blew me away and may well have just turned out to be the best fantasy novel of 2015 so far, offering up an imaginative, risky approach to the narrative, with some wonderful world building and pacing that makes this book pretty much a required read for fantasy fans.

The Stillness sounds like it would be a safe place to live, right? Well, guess again, because due to its geology, it’s incredibly unstable, and the Stillness has gone through several apocalyptic, end of the world-esque events each called “Seasons”, that provide an incredible backdrop for this novel, which has an astounding amount of depth in terms of world building and creativity. It manages to feel refreshingly unique in terms of the many epic fantasy novels available on the market today, offering an interesting perspective, spotlighting a flawed, well developed and interesting character called Essun, whose day goes from bad to worse when she learns her own husband has kidnapped their daughter and killed their son, and as the Sanze Empire falls around her, she must journey through the end of the world to find her family as an intense battle for survival draws near.

And Essun is not the only character who we meet in this novel. She herself is an Orogene, people who do their best to make a world a better place despite being shunned by the populace due to their unstable powers, and have to go through extreme measures to keep them under control. One of these characters that we meet is called Damaya, who goes on such a journey to control her powers, and another is Syenite, who is slightly more experienced but still requires a mentor to ensure that there will be more Orogones in the future. It’s an interesting, diverse cast with distinct narrative voices of their own. This book manages to accomplish something incredibly rare that I’ve seen in epic fantasy and actually makes the second person pronoun, you, work, and work well, offering a powerful perspective into the world through the eyes of the character.

So many fantasy novels use the typical medieval Europe setting as a backdrop but what’s incredibly refreshing is that The Fifth Season breaks from the norm, with an interesting mix of characters that come from all sorts of background and culture, making all the more unique. This only helps add to the incredible layer of detail put into the novel that make it a very compelling read, using a fantastic fantasy backdrop that never feels dull or overly drawn out, with Jemisin not only crafting a great world, but also weaving a fantastic story.

If you’re a fan of fantasy fiction, The Fifth Season is an absolute must read. Powerful, engaging and utterly compelling from start to finish, this is something that will easily finish in the Top 10, if not my Top 5, selection of best novels of the year come its end. Excellent stuff.

VERDICT: 9.75/10

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