I used to keep up with science fiction publishing news by reading LOCUS, but I stopped doing that some years ago. Recently I was astonished to learn that author N.K. Jemisin had won the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel not once, but three years in a row for the three books in her Broken Earth trilogy. I thought I should try it, and this is the first one. I will say up front that, if the others are as good as this, I have a new favorite SF author!
The book focuses on several women and one powerful man. It’s a world with one large continent called The Stillness ironically, because it’s anything but. Several tectonic plates form it, and the earth beneath them is very unstable. Earthquakes and volcanoes are common, and every few hundred years or so, a major seismic event throws everything into chaos. These events are called a Fifth Season, because the usual four seasons are completely disrupted. Cities and civilizations die, ash fall blankets the land, and the people of The Stillness perish in great numbers. But some of them, the orogenes, have developed a natural evolutionary response to these threats. They are born with extra sensory organs that can manipulate and control seismic disturbances. Some do it instinctively from birth, but the best are trained in the capital city of Yumenes to perform this work with delicate precision, keeping the worst effects from areas they live in. In that way, an empire of sorts has been able to survive the Fifth Seasons long enough to establish sway over most of the large continent. A specialized type of orogene has also been developed to control the others, the Guardians. Orogenes who have trained in equatorial Yumenes at The Fulcrum are sent on missions by the government, using their powers for specific tasks. Others who are less skilled are used in other ways, cruelly. Orogenes in the outlands, among the “stills,” as the non-powered are called by them, live in fear of their lives: if their powers are detected, they will be killed.
Against this backdrop, the novel follows several women. Essun, a middle-aged woman, is living in a small southern community far from the cities, keeping her orogene powers a secret, but her two children also have them. Her young son’s power is discovered by the boy’s father, who kills him and runs away with the daughter. Then there’s Damaya, a girl in a small northern community, whose orogene powers have suddenly become known to her family. She is taken by a Guardian to be trained at The Fulcrum in Yumenes, torn from everything she knows, and thrust into a world she doesn’t understand. Finally, there’s Syenite, a trained orogene at The Fulcrum, who is assigned to a mission with the most powerful orogene of all, Alabaster. The two don’t like each other, but must learn to work together, especially after their mission is threatened. All three women are connected in ways that only gradually become known to the reader, and Alabaster, long tortured by his role in this world, finally unleashes a cataclysm that begins the next horrible Fifth Season.
Great read, thrilling and exciting, full of fascinating ideas and characters, and a plot that kept me guessing. Highly recommended. I look forward to reading the rest of the trilogy.