Over the summer, I was perusing an article highlighting minority voices in sci-fi and fantasy. N.K. Jeminsin's, The Fifth Season, caught my attention, so I picked up a copy, but I didn't crack the cover until last month. In short, I loved it.
This book has a lot going for it. It's set in a future where Earth is a more volatile habitat. The planet is far more active with earthquakes and volcanos and such, which has presumably wiped our modern societies and cultures out, along with current technologies. Thus, what humans survived rebuilt entirely new communities, though many of our social problems persist. (More on that later) In fact, this culling of the human population due to inhospitable environmental conditions hasn't happened just once, but rather time and time again, to the point that the world has a name for it, a Fifth Season. This setting is both familiar and unfamiliar. Many elements of the setting harken back to pre-industrial human history, while other features are new and exciting, like how people speak of the Earth as if it has a personality and a distinct dislike for humans.
Then there's the "magic." Readers learn early that in this world, some people are born with the power to effect earth, as in the soil and rock. These characters can summon boulders up from the ground, draw heat from the air, and a lot more. Where did this power come from? Did it evolve in humans over the thousands of years between now and when the book is set? All this is unclear. At least through this the first book in the series. But the consequences of this power and the people who have it is a far more engaging idea. In this world, only a small percent of people have this power, and those who don't fear the ones who do. In turn, they abuse them, kill them, enslave them, and force them to live meager lives and to use their powers for the collective when, where, and how they are directed to do so.
And of course, there are the characters. The story mostly follows Essun, and jumps between four periods of her life. In many ways, she's lived four very different lives, one as a child hiding a secret, one as a slave of sorts, one as an adult hiding a secret, and more. (No spoilers) As the story jumps points in time, we piece together a complex and riveting story arc, and a plot that doesn't lack in highs, lowes, heartbreaks, and triumphs.
On top of all this wonderful, there are threads of underlying themes and poignant, reflective criticism of our society. (Which great spec fiction often includes.)
Off the top of my head, but not limited to:
· Taking care of the environment so that the environment can provide for us.
· The folly of judging people by their race, religion, or heritage.
· The folly of tribalism.
· The folly of forced labor.
· The folly in gender inequality.
· Cultural ignorance and not being open-minded to people who are different from yourself.
· Struggles with social casts and social mobility.
But the icing on the cake - although there is a supernatural element to the book, it stills calls pseudosciences into criticism as well, which I love, and has been a theme I've tried to feature in my own novels. There are many nods to legit science, particularly geology, which I also relish.
Without a doubt, I'll be reading the rest of Jeminsin's Broken Earth series. I've already started book 2.