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What can you say about a novel that opens with unthinkable revenge - a deliberately-evoked cataclysm that will destroy a civilisation and scar a planet - and the searing grief of a mother at the sight of her brutally murdered son? N. K. Jemisin's latest book, Fifth Season, is a brilliantly conceived and executed novel about the unending cycle of destruction and rebirth that is life, set in a world shaped by apocalypse after apocalypse in which history is unreliable and much of the past is lost.

In this world of brokenness and endings, the earth itself is the great antagonist, the Evil Earth, the cruel Father, venting rage on the peoples living on his surface with earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, sometimes on a scale that nearly brings all life to ruin. The only force known to be able to hold back the damage is the gift of the orogenes, a human-seeming people with the ability to sense and manipulate the energies in stone, earth, and even living beings. They can quell or cause the earthshifts, great and small, but unless their powers are trained and under control, the energy they draw from their surroundings to achieve this can kill.

In the time and place of the novel, the current civilisation has found a way to force control on the orogenes, who are treated as potentially dangerous tools, not people, subject to an organisation known as The Fulcrum which gathers orogenes - or roggas, as they are called by most humans - as children and trains them to serve the needs of human society.

The narrative is told in three strands, at three different points in time. On the earliest strand, Damaya, a young orogene discovered when she instinctively uses her powers to defend herself against a human boy, is taken by a Guardian and brought to the Fulcrum for training. In the second strand, an orogene woman named Syrenite is sent by the Fulcrum on a mission with an older and very powerful orogene, Alabaster, to clear a blocked harbour in the city of Allia. And in the third strand, which opens at the moment of the cataclysm, an orogene woman hiding from the Fulcrum, passing as human, finds her dead son, and sets out through the wounded landscape and the post-apocalyptic chaos to track the killer who has taken her daughter.

Like the land itself, the characters are wounded again and again, partially healing only to face yet another catastrophe, and yet in their survival is the hope that something can be salvaged, and that perhaps, if the world is changed enough, there can finally be true healing - even if it is the healing of the end of all things.

The first of a trilogy of books, Fifth Season is a powerful and mature work from a master storyteller.


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