Continuing with my reviews of the 2015 Nebula Award nominees, we come to "The Fifth Season" by N.K. Jemisin, narrated by Robin Miles in the Audible.com selection to which I listened. Let's begin with the publisher's summary.
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.
I have to be very, very careful in this review not to provide any spoilers whatsoever. And it is a hard thing to do. This book was full of so much goodness... it is hard to keep it to myself. But for your sake I will do it, because as much as I'd like to rave about the twists and turns in this story I want even more for you to enjoy them as much as I did.
This is NOT the book you think it is. It is much better than that book. This is not the simple story of a woman trying to save her daughter. If you think this book would follow such a narrow trope you'll be wonderfully surprised. There are stereotypes and tropes in this book, but they are not story confining as sometimes (often?) happens. The way in which N.K. Jemisin brings them to life gets to the very heart of why such tropes exist. Many writers can use tropes as a vehicle to move a story down the highway of conclusion. It is rare to find an author who seems to understand the engine of that vehicle, and I think more importantly, the fuel that makes such journeys inevitable.
For example, it is possible for an author to write about the tropes associated with racism and bigotry without understanding how racism and bigotry shapes the people subjected to it. In this book I was very quickly convinced that not only does N.K. Jemisin grok such things, but I am certain she writes of them from a position of superior understanding. That's a euphemism for she's been subjected to racism and bigotry personally if you need it spelled out. Being in a position of social privilege myself, I do not have the life experience to understand how a person subjected to bigotry is shaped by it. But through authors like N.K. Jemisin, I get a glimmer of how such treatment affects those subjected to it. It's makes me thoughtful, and that is not a bad thing.
Another thing I loved about this book is it is a story as much about geology as it is about social inequality. And for those that don't know, I am a geo-nerd extreme. I love all things geology. The history of the earth as told by the stones under our feet are as real to me as any history written by people. And this book is all about geology. When N.K. Jemisin does world building, she does so very literally. I've never read about a world like this one, and I like to believe that's saying something. The Stillness (her name for the world) is unique in my experience, and I revelled in every "shake" and every "blow."
And through that dynamic world geology, we come to know the people who control it. They use orogeny, a mental talent I can only describe as some form of telekinesis taken to extremity. It literally has the power to move mountains, or raise them, or level them. You get the picture. The Sanze Empire calls these people orogenes, but almost everyone calls them rogga when they are not around, and often when they are. If you replace the first two letters of that word with the first consonant and last vowel of the author's full name, you'll understand perfectly the nature of the word. And because of the awesome power they possess, these "cursed" people, for that is how they view themselves, are tightly controlled to the point of being told with whom they must breed; 'nuf said.
For all the glowy gushing words I've written about this story, it is not perfect. The first problem is it is very difficult to start. It isn't that what happens is so horrifying, because it is. This is after all a dystopian world. It's that the story is seriously disjointed and doesn't seem to make sense. The author does no hand holding. The narrators, for there is more than one point of view trough most of the book and it's not easy to tell when changes happen, simply tell you what is happening without a sense of how the story arc got there and why it's important - or even how it relates to anything else in the story. The "confusion" lasts for at least a third of the book. It took me that long to figure out what was going on and why the story was written as it was. In hindsight, it was pure brilliance. The entire book is an analogy, an explanation if you would, and that's all I'll say about it. Anything more is a spoiler. Just read the words for what they are and trust me when I say N.K. Jemisin is leading you down a wonderful literary trail.
The other problem with this book is it's only a beginning. You'll have to read the entire series to get the conclusion, and it could be a long time coming. I don't have an issue with this. After all I'm still waiting for the conclusion of The Psalms of Isaak. But there are those who may resent having to slog through 17 plus hours of introduction with no closure in the end. Not even a little. You will end the book with more questions than answers in fact. If that drives you crazy, consider yourself warned.
The last thing I'll say is neither a positive or a negative about the book, but an acknowledgement that I live in an imperfect society populated by people with whom I would share a beer. To wit, if you are not accepting of alternative lifestyles in the real world, skip this book. It's not for you. Also, I cannot recommend it for children. Teenagers are probably okay to read this book, but only if they have above average maturity. Let me put it another way: this book is not work safe. It is real. It is gritty. It is horrible. It is outrageous. It may even be controversial (not an opinion I share BTW.) And it would probably be banned from school libraries in Texas if those prudes read books like this. But it is an accurate reflection of humanity whether you want to accept that or not. And if not, skip the book.
That said, if none of that bothers you read The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth #1) by N.K. Jemisin. Of the five books on the Nebula nominee list I've listened to, this is currently my favorite to win the award. It is not the one I've gotten the most fun from hearing. That goes to Raising Caine. However, The Fifth Season has been the most rewarding book to listen to from more serious angles, and that makes it outstanding in my opinion.