Happy Tuesday, bibliophiles!
I forget what triggered it, but a few years back, I piled a bunch of N.K. Jemisin’s books onto my TBR. I just finished up the Great Cities duology recently and enjoyed it (though The World We Make I enjoyed less so), but I was still excited to read the Broken Earth series from all of the praise it’s been given. I’m usually wary of overly long fantasy books, but The Fifth Season defied all of my expectations and delivered one of the most well-crafted fantasies I’ve read in recent years.
Enjoy this week’s review!
The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth, #1) – N.K. Jemisin
In the land of the Stillness, natural disasters are an inevitable part of life. Every so often, the land goes through cycles of extreme weather, where the earth tears itself apart and the land is blanketed in ash and darkness.
This Fifth Season has arrived once more, and with it comes a world in chaos. Amidst the chaos is Essun, a woman on the run after witnessing her husband murder her young son. Her last hope is her daughter, whose whereabouts are unknown. But in a land filled with unknown disasters and people willing to turn on the orogenes—those with the power to control the earth—Essun must overcome unimaginable hurdles to find her daughter and bring her to safety.
TW/CW: murder, infanticide, abuse, mentions of genocide, slavery, implied rape (child), descriptions of injury/blood, sexual coercion, kidnapping, human experimentation
This is my own bias here, but as a principle, I’m automatically weary of overly long fantasy books; that length usually means something along the lines of either a) excessive, infodumped worldbuilding , b) long stretches of the story without much plot, or c) a combination of both. But The Fifth Season proved me SO wrong on that front—Jemisin dodged both of those traps effortlessly, resulting in one of the most inventive fantasy books I’ve read in years.
My first exposure to N.K. Jemisin was through the Great Cities duology, and I was surprised at how starkly different the writing styles were; The City We Became was witty, but rather ham-fisted more often than not, which somewhat suited the story she was telling. The writing of The Fifth Season was a much better fit for the story’s tone: it hit the balance of being to-the-point and fantastical, a style which, given some of the very dark themes that this novel explores, gives it the respect that it deserves. After finishing this novel, I’m more inclined to this style, but above all, reading the two is proof of her versatility of a writer—Jemisin can bridge the tonal gap and make it look ridiculously easy.
About the worldbuilding—The Fifth Season boasts some of the most detailed and compelling worldbuilding that I’ve seen in a fantasy series, but compelling is the part that I want to emphasize. It’s one thing to flesh out your world, but if the detail you give it is arbitrary and irrelevant to the story you’re trying to tell, it becomes redundant. But Jemisin gives the world of the Stillness a rich, believable history, and considers every consequence imaginable of the constraints in her world. Every ramification of the concepts in her world are considered, and they’re shown in organic ways, from the (gruesome) depictions of how the humans have systemically oppressed the orogenes (also a very sharp social commentary) to the biological consequences of a world constantly gripped by extreme natural disasters. Jemisin left no stones unturned, and it paid off in such an enjoyable way.
And if there’s one thing that N.K. Jemisin can do exceptionally well, it’s make me despise a character with every cell of my being. Her protagonists are compelling, but she’s so skilled at making characters that absolutely make your skin crawl. Both Schaffa and Alabaster were case studies in manipulation, and so many of their scenes, especially when they interacted with Damaya and Syenite, respectively, it was genuinely hard to read, but still so authentic to how authority figures often manipulate those below them, especially if they’re young women. Bottom line: they both sucked, but N.K. Jemisin did a disturbingly good job of making them suck so realistically.
I debated on whether or not to discuss this last part, but it’s really best to go in blind—even if I put a spoiler warning and discussed it, I don’t think I could get across how mind-blowingly well-crafted the main twist with the different POVs was. It’s…AGH. IT WAS JUST SO WELL-DONE. I CAN’T SPEAK COHERENTLY ABOUT IT. Again, even if the worldbuilding is confusing. GO INTO THIS BOOK BLIND. YOU WON’T REGRET IT. IT’S AMAZING. TRUST ME. And a sidetone—props to N.K. Jemisin for seamlessly pulling off a 2nd person POV, and, once again, making it look easy.
All in all, a fantasy novel that defied my expectations on nearly every front, resulting in one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had all year. 4.25 stars!
The Fifth Season is the first book in the Broken Earth trilogy, followed by The Obelisk Gate (book 2) and The Stone Sky (book 3). Jemisin is also the author of The Great Cities series (The City We Became and The World We Make), the Far Sector series for DC Comics, and many other books.
That’s it for this week’s Book Review Tuesday! Have a wonderful rest of your day, and take care of yourselves!