Review: “The Fifth Season,” N.K. Jemisin

Pros: Stunning epic fantasy
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

I picked up N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth) because her The Inheritance Trilogy left a deep and lasting impression on me. I couldn’t wait to read more. In The Fifth Season, we follow three female characters in alternating narrations. Damaya is a young girl who has just found out that she’s an orogene, capable of stopping (and causing) all sorts of shifts in the earth. Her parents fear her, and have sent for a Guardian to take her to the Fulcrum, where she will be trained to use her power for the good of the Empire. Syenite is a young woman and orogene who is being sent by the Fulcrum to clear a harbor of coral; she’s forced to take along a very powerful mentor, and it’s made clear to her that her real mission is to conceive a child with him. Finally, Essun is a wife and mother to two children who inherited her orogenic abilities. She just came home to find that her husband has killed her young son and taken her daughter away. Before she can go after them, calamity strikes. A great shake splits the continent and sends ash into the air. A new Season has begun–a time in which the sun is blotted out and conditions for life become very hostile.

This world is quite fascinating. The land is highly dynamic, with constant quakes, volcanos, and so on. Because of this, civilizations continually build themselves up only to be knocked down again over and over. So far, this time around the orogenes have been well-organized by the Empire, so they’ve been able to keep the land comparatively steady. The ability to calm shakes is instinctive to them. Jemisin has clearly put a great deal of thought into how all of these elements would affect civilizations, the land, small communities, and so forth. Scientific advances are somewhat uneven, because people have existed on this continent for a very long time, but they keep getting beaten down again. Some lore remains each time.

Essun’s sections of the book are told from a very unusual point of view: the narrator addresses us as “you,” and the “you” he’s talking to is Essun. The reader is put in her position. It sounds horribly awkward, but it’s actually quite engaging. I kept getting so caught up in the narrative that it was almost painful each time it switched from one set of characters to another.

The connections between the three narratives are not entirely obvious for quite some time. In fact, the only reason I even realized that the three stories took place in different time periods at first was because two of them clearly weren’t taking place during the start of the Season. The eventual revelations because of this are nice, but I don’t think that bit of confusion was necessarily worth it. It would have been nice if at least the time differences had been made more clear from the start.

The detail about Fulcrum attempting to “breed” new orogenes was handled very well. Only particularly accomplished orogenes can refuse such pairings, mostly because they’re so powerful no one could force them anyway. So it’s essentially a rape in which neither party is consenting. Jemisin supports this with some very non-sexy sex scenes, and handles it very well. The narrative really makes the degradation of the act clear. Content note: sexual content, and implied child rape. Also child death.

The diversity in here is wonderful. There are characters of all races and skin colors, same-sex relationships, opposite-sex relationships, relationships involving more than two people, and a transgender character. It’s just a natural part of the world.

I’m enjoying The Fifth Season as much as I did The Inheritance Trilogy. I can’t get enough of Jemisin’s writing!

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