I was captivated by the imagined world created by N.K. Jemisin in this novel, first of a trilogy, as I had not been since I first read Tolkien or Herbert all those many years ago. Jemisin's achievement might even be more remarkable because my imagination has grown somewhat deadened and jaded in the intervening years and it probably takes more to "captivate" it these days.
Jemisin's world is called Stillness but it is anything but still. It is Earth but an Earth riven by constant earthquakes and volcanoes and apocalyptic events. The world still has the four seasons known to us, but when one of these apocalyptic events occurs, it can trigger a Fifth Season which may last years, centuries, millennia and which is a near-extinction event. Imagine a world where George R.R. Martin's winter has come - to stay.
Jemisin's world-building is amazing in its detail. There is evidence of past civilizations everywhere in ruined cities and in the "stonelore" that is handed down from one generation to the next. There are also strange, unexplained obelisks that float in the atmosphere like satellites. What purpose do they serve? Are they from another world, another civilization?
The Stillness civilization that exists as we encounter it is called the Sanze Empire and it has learned to survive by harnessing the power of special humans called orogenes. Orogenes are born with an innate ability to control their environment. They are able to start or stop earthquakes and to save cities. The Empire has developed a caste called Guardians who serve as controls for the orogenes and can neutralize them if they become a threat.
In spite of their power, orogenes are held in contempt by ordinary humans (called stills) and orogene children, when discovered, are often abused or killed by them. Moreover, the stills have a derogatory name for orogenes. They call them roggas. If the children are discovered or sussed out by the ruling power, they are sent to a place called the Fulcrum (think Hogwarts) to be trained.
We learn all of this through the experiences of three female characters: Damaya, a child who is given to a Guardian and taken to the Fulcrum when she is discovered to be an orogene; Syenite, a powerful Fulcrum-trained orogene; and Essun, an orogene mother in a post-apocalyptic world who is searching for her lost daughter. It took me longer than it should have to figure out that all three of these characters are actually personas of a single individual. (There, I hope I haven't spoiled it for you!)
In my defense, let me say that the three intertwining narratives are confusing at first and they don't match up because they are not told in sequential order. The writer jumps back and forth in time. I can see how this might be irritating and even daunting to some readers but my advice is just to stick with it; after a while it all begins to make sense. Well, a kind of dystopian sense anyway.
The writing is quite visionary and creative and it is not at all surprising that the book was nominated for so many different awards and actually won the Hugo Award for Best Science Fiction Book of 2016. Overall, I found it to be a very rewarding read with a lot to tell us about the darkest human motivations, a story quite applicable to what may be the beginning of our own "Fifth Season."
My rating: 5 of 5 stars