N.K. Jemisin’s ambitious Broken Earth trilogy begins with the novel The Fifth Season (2015). At the beginning of the beginning, we’re told that the world ends when a man, in conversation with a stone eater, breaks the earth, inducing what’s known as a Fifth Season, an extended period of climate change manifesting in cold and darkness.
The first book alternates chapters between what initially appears to be three different characters: Essun, whose chapters are told in the second person, and Damaya and Syenite, whose chapters are conveyed in the third person.
Essun has orogenic powers, meaning she can manipulate the earth’s heat and energy to her own ends. Orogenes are looked down on in the society of the supercontinent called the Stillness, as indicated when Essun’s husband Jija beats their three-year-old son Uche to death after figuring out he has orogenic powers. Essun discovers Uche’s body around the same time she quells a shake caused by the man at the beginning breaking the earth. Her orogenic identity revealed by having done so, Essun flees her village after learning that Jija fled earlier with their daughter Nassun, who’s also an orogene. On the road, Essun meets a strange young boy calling himself Hoa, who appears to know where Nassun is.
Meanwhile, Syenite, a Fulcrum-trained orogene with four rings, is sent on a two-part mission with the ten-ringer Alabaster: first to reproduce, and second to visit the town of Allia to use their orogenic powers to fix something that’s blocking the harbor. Along the way, Alabaster enlightens Syenite about some orogene history she was ignorant of, showing her a node maintainer station where orogenes are kept just alive enough for their orogeny to be manipulated. After Alabaster is mysteriously poisoned but saves himself by hijacking Syenite’s orogeny to join with his own, Syenite inadvertently raises an obelisk from Allia’s harbor with a stone eater trapped in it. When a guardian then tries to kill them, the obelisk sucks Syen up and a stone eater spirits her and Alabaster away to the island of Meov, where they actually let orogenes be leaders. Syen has Alabaster’s baby, Corundum, and for a couple of years they live a happy life.
We also meet the child Damaya, who is outcast from her family after inadvertently revealing her orogenic powers and who’s then retrieved by a guardian named Schaffa, who takes her to the Fulcrum in the Stillness’s biggest city, Yumenes, where orogenes are trained to use their powers with precision. Ostracized by her peers, one day Damaya meets an outsider, Binof, who’s snuck in looking for something whispered about in secret histories, and they discover a giant pit a guardian refers to as a “socket”; Schaffa kills that guardian shortly thereafter for acting erratic. Damaya is revealed to be Syenite in her final chapter, after she takes her first ring test and chooses her orogene name.
Still on the road, Essun and Hoa meet a commless geomest woman calling herself Tonkee, and Hoa inadvertently reveals himself to be a stone eater when he turns an animal that attacks him to stone. Hoa loses Nassun’s trail when he senses a nearby community full of orogenes, Castrima, living in a crystal-filled geode and led by an orogene named Ykka, who Essun then joins with Hoa and Tonkee. Essun realizes Tonkee is Binof (thus revealing Essun to be Damaya/Syenite), who tells Essun the socket they found in the Fulcrum as children is where obelisks come from, and that she’s been following Essun for years because she noticed that an obelisk was following Essun.
Back on Meov, Syenite joins a pirating expedition that takes her near Allia, where she quells an active volcano that formed in their confrontation with the guardian who tried to kill them. This gives her presence away to the guardians, who sail to Meov to retrieve her and Alabaster. A stone eater drags Alabaster into the earth, and when Schaffa comes for Syenite, she smothers Corundum rather than letting Schaffa take him, since she fears Schaffa will make him a node maintainer. She then summons a nearby obelisk, causing it to send a pulse so powerful it presumably kills everyone in the area, though she manages to survive. Sensing the pulse from this obelisk is how Hoa, who’s revealed to be the narrator, found her.
In Castrima, Essun is told someone named Alabaster is asking for her. He’s attended by a stone eater and has partially turned to stone himself. He asks her if she can control obelisks yet, and she realizes he’s the one who caused the rift that started the season, using an obelisk. He asks her if she’s ever heard of something called the Moon. The End of Book 1.
Jemisin does an excellent job of establishing the acute tension right away, presenting the rifting that the trilogy is named for in the prologue, along with some basic information about this world called the Stillness. Interestingly, a major acute event for Essun, the murder of her son by her husband, is actually not directly related to this worldwide acute tension. It seems like Jemisin could have written it that Jija ended up finally detecting Uche’s orogenic powers when Uche did something in response to the rifting, but we’ll learn definitively in Book 2 that this was not the case; Jija would have detected Uche’s powers at this particular point in time even if the rifting had never happened, while Essun’s response to the rifting does reveal her orogenic powers, meaning she would have had to flee at this point whether Uche had died or not. These two acute events that we start with only coincidentally occur at the same time, but the coincidence provides Essun a sense of direction once she does flee; it gives her an objective that heightens the general tension–she needs to find her daughter Nassun, and the journey to do so is the thread through the whole trilogy.
Another source of tension driving the narrative of the first book in particular is the implicit question of how the three separate storylines we’re following–Essun’s, Damaya’s, and Syenite’s–will end up intersecting. The presumption on first read is that the three characters are on trajectories that will lead to them all meeting up and doing something together. While this is the case in a sense, it’s a genuinely satisfying surprise that they all turn out to be the same person. Even after the reveal that Damaya was Syenite, I still didn’t guess that they were also Essun until the reveal through Tonkee/Binof, though I probably should have. This conceit might have felt deceitful if it weren’t fitting for the character: it symbolizes how the character essentially has become different people at these particular transition points in her life. The transition might be a little more definitive for Syenite turning to Essun, since she has to hide her previous identity to evade capture by the Fulcrum’s guardians, and since Essun is not supposed to be perceived as an orogene at all, but the transition from Damaya to Syenite is significant since she’s stepping into an identity that’s primarily defined as orogene.
Following three different threads is good for pacing, drawing out tension in each one when we’re left with a cliffhanger that then won’t receive immediate resolution. We build toward something horrible that happened in Syen’s past, the event that caused her to have to become Essun, then end Book 1 on the cliffhanger of that past returning to her in the form of Alabaster, whose reappearance and question about the Moon indicate he has something in mind that he wants her to do. This, in conjunction with the potential of a reunion with her daughter, helps compel the reader on to Book 2.
Another interesting aspect of the overall story is the nature of orogenes themselves, or rather, their place in society. They essentially have superpowers, but are not venerated for them; instead they’re ostracized and feared, subsumed into the menacing bureaucracy of the Fulcrum, where they’re kept on a tight leash by the guardians, whose nature Alabaster encourages Syenite to question (who controls the guardians is a question we’re still left with at the end of Book 1).
The negative general attitude toward orogenes (often referred to by the slur “rogga”) is viscerally revealed from the beginning when we see that a man was driven to beat his own child to death because of his orogene nature, and is underscored further when we see how Essun has to flee when her nature is exposed, even though it’s exposed through an action that helped her village, using her powers to protect it from damage by a shake. Orogenes’ powers are even more vital to survival during a Season, and it seems to be this very need for them that breeds hatred of them. The prejudice seems to largely derive from the fact that some orogenes are not skilled at controlling their powers (hence the need for the Fulcrum) and have the potential to cause inadvertent but serious damage (especially since the powers manifest in response to strong emotions). Yet the inadvertent damage orogenes do (demonstrated primarily through the way Damaya’s powers are revealed) pales in comparison to the violence done to them in the name of combating their inadvertent potential violence, like Damaya’s treatment by her family, or Schaffa breaking Damaya’s hand as part of a lesson all Fulcrum inductees are given in order to understand the importance of controlling themselves.
The world building in the book is one of its most impressive elements, all derived from the basic concept that superhuman powers affect (or afflict) multiple people instead of just one person like traditional superhero narratives. People’s negative attitude toward orogenes, who manipulate the power of the Earth, could be read as a byproduct of their negative attitude toward the Earth in general, fostered in response to the cataclysmic Seasons that all but wipe out the human race. There’s an extensive glossary at the end of the book for all the weird stuff in this world, but it’s not technically necessary since Jemisin writes in a way where you can glean the necessary information along the way (it’s not difficult to interpolate that a “shake” is an earthquake), though there’s more information on the history of past Seasons than she manages to slip into the action.
One way Jemisin conveys impressions of the story’s larger world is through epigraphs, the use of which are unique for two reasons: first, because she puts them at the end of the chapter rather than the beginning (which makes logical sense in general since when you read an epigraph before you’ve read the chapter it’s attached to, you’re unable to glean its larger meaning or connection to the material), and second, because the epigraphs are not from our world, but from the story’s world, in the form of proverbs and diaries and pieces of “Lorist” texts, “stonelore” being historical accounts of what’s happened in the story’s world. (The question of history and what happened in the first place to start the Seasons will be explored much more extensively in Book 3.)
That people have an antagonistic relationship with the Earth due to the Seasons is an aspect of the world that is constantly reinforced through the language they use, specifically, through the way they curse. “Evil Earth” is a favorite, as are invocations of “rust” instead of “fuck” (as in “What the rust?” or “too rusting busy”), though on occasion traditional curses like “fuck” and “shit” will still be used. At times the Earth-based cursing can feel a little excessive (“bloody, burning Earth”; “burning, flaking rust”; “burning rusty fuck”; “Earthfires and rustbuckets”), but it’s still a handy creative expression of the world that makes the reader feel fully immersed in it because the characters feel fully immersed in it. It also does a good job of showing when Essun is upset, which is often. We’ll rejoin her in Book 2…
Prologue: the way the world ends for the last time: the land of the Stillness is described with its greatest city, Yumenes. A man and a stone eater talk there before the man breaks the earth. Obelisks, monuments from an older civilization, will also play a role in the world’s end. The son of a woman in Tirimo, Essun, is dead. A strange geode hatches a boy who heads for Tirimo.
1 In Tirimo, Essun finds her dead son Uche in her house after her husband Jija beat him to death when he realized the boy had orogenic powers. A local, Lerna, the only one who knows of Essun’s orogenic powers besides her two children, takes her to his place to rest and tells her people know there’s a rogga in town since the devastating shakes that happened nearby missed Tirimo in a perfect circle. Essun resolves to leave.
2 The child Damaya has been banished to her family’s barn after inadvertently revealing her orogenic powers. A guardian, Schaffa, retrieves her to take her to the Fulcrum in Yumenes, where orogenes are trained.
3 Tirimo’s headman Rask has closed its gates due to the shakes, and Essun goes to talk to him to get him to let her leave, revealing she’s an orogene, while Rask reveals people saw her husband Jija leaving town with her daughter Nassun, whom Essun assumed Jija had also killed. When Rask takes her to the gate, the guards suspect she’s the town’s orogene and try to kill her, but Essun kills some with her powers and the rest flee.
4 The formerly feral four-ringer Fulcrum orogene Syenite is assigned a double mission with a ten-ringer; she meets him in his suite and, in spite of his rudeness, has sex with him to fulfill the first part of the mission, reproducing.
5 Traveling away from Tirimo, Essun meets a little boy by himself who says his name is Hoa.
6 Traveling toward the Fulcrum with Schaffa, Damaya gets a lesson in relations between guardians and orogenes when Schaffa breaks her hand.
7 Hoa reveals to Essun that he knows where her daughter Nassun is, but not how he knows.
8 En route to the Fulcrum’s assignment, Alabaster and Syenite sess a major shake that Alabaster quells by using Syen’s orogeny against her will. Believing it was caused by a node maintainer (orogenes who are supposed to prevent such shakes), they go to a station and find them all dead, including a child (possibly Alabaster’s) who’s strapped in a chair; Alabaster reveals that many are sedated and forced to perform orogeny out at such stations against their will.
Interlude: Islands and other continents are not things people talk about in the Stillness.
9 Syenite and Alabaster arrive in Allia for their job and Alabaster ends up poisoned by his hotel food, but yokes Syen’s powers to his to use orogeny to expel the poison, explaining to her that it’s “parallel scaling.”
10 Camping at a roadhouse, Essun and Hoa have to flee when something unseen attacks it, but then have to go back for water, where they meet a commless geomest woman. A kirkhusa attacks Hoa, who turns it to stone.
11 At the Fulcrum, Damaya is ostracized after a boy named Maxixe talks to her, and when she frames him for stealing her shoes to get back at him, she inadvertently reveals more serious stuff was going on with other grits, like trading sex for liquor.
12 Syenite goes to do the coral-clearing job they’ve been assigned by herself and ends up releasing an obelisk with a dead stone eater trapped in it from the bottom of Allia’s harbor.
13 The geomest, Tonkee, travels with Essun and Hoa, and they talk to people at roadhouses about what they’ve seen. Hoa says he’s lost Nassun’s trail because of a place he senses nearby where a lot of roggas are congregating.
14 The Fulcrum instructs Alabaster and Syen to stay put. Alabaster won’t talk about the obelisk until they’re walking outside, and reveals that he can control it. They encounter a guardian who tries to kill them, but then the obelisk Syen raised from the harbor sucks her up, and shatters.
15 Essun et al get to the pseudo-comm with all the roggas, where they’re taken in by the rogga leader, Ykka. Essun is devastated that Nassun and Jija aren’t there.
16 Syen and Alabaster wake up on an island, where a stone eater brought them. They’re welcomed by a community of pirates (Meov) who put roggas in charge.
17 A non-rogga named Binof enlists Damaya’s help to find something she’s suspicious the Fulcrum is hiding, and they discover a secret chamber with a strange giant pit the guardian who catches them refers to as a “socket.” This guardian starts talking strangely and Schaffa violently removes something from the base of her neck, killing her. He has Damaya take her first ring test and she chooses the rogga name “Syenite.”
18 Essun gets a tour of the crystal-filled geode where the comm of Castrima resides.
19 Syenite and Alabaster debate over who will get Innon, Meov’s charismatic feral rogga leader who’s sexually interested in both of them, and then both end up taking him. Syen is pregnant.
Interlude: A happy period for Syen.
20 When her son with Alabaster, Corundum, is two, Syen convinces Innon to let her go on a pirate raid with him, and when she uses orogeny on a couple of ships, has to kill them so word doesn’t get out there are orogenes on the island. Then she insists on going back to Allia, where she quells an active volcano created by the obelisk with the stone eater.
21 Essun realizes that Tonkee is actually Binof, and Tonkee explains how she’s been tracking her for years because she’s had obelisks following her, and that the socket they found in the Fulcrum is where the obelisks come from. Hoa confirms he’s a stone eater, and Essun runs into Lerna, her friend from Tirimo. Hoa tells her a man named Alabaster is asking for her.
22 Guardian ships descend on Meov. A stone eater drags Alabaster into the earth, and to keep her son Coru from becoming one of the node maintainers, Syen kills him when Schaffa tries to take him, then calls on the power of a nearby obelisk, killing almost everyone in the vicinity but surviving herself. Sensing the pulse from the obelisk is how Hoa, the narrator, found her.
23 In Castrima, Alabaster, attended by a stone eater and partially turned to stone, asks Essun if she can control obelisks yet. She realizes he’s the one who, with an obelisk, caused the rift that started the season. He says he wants her to make things worse and asks if she’s ever heard of a Moon.