THE FIFTH SEASON – N.K. Jemisin (2015)

The Fifth SeasonThe Fifth Season is a quick, easy read: I burned through its 450 pages in a weekend. It’s the first book of The Broken Earth trilogy: the sequel The Obelisk Gate should be published in August later this year.

The story is fairly standard: the world is ending because of a deliberate and magically invoked cataclysm, and the book follows 3 women in 3 different time frames fairly close to said cataclysm. There’s Damaya, a young women discovering her magical powers while being mentored in a magic school, Syenite, an older apprentice of the same school who is sent on her first real mission. Seynite discovers the real world moral complexity of her organization – it’s not really that complex: they keep slaves themselves for protection, and she’s ordered to breed to keep the numbers up. And lastely, there’s Essun, an older women that wants revenge for the murder of her son.

What makes this novel stand out from the bulk of fantasy is its focus on plate tectonics: both the history of the world and the magic system revolve around this aspect. It’s interesting, but don’t expect Kim Stanley Robinson or Neal Stephenson levels of research or complexity on the matter. Every so often, this world goes through a so-called ‘fifth season’: a few years or decades of despair because of various seismic events. And some people – called orogenes – are able to control seismic activity with their minds, because they are born like that. That’s about it for the plate tectonic complexity.

So, to cut to the chase: The Fifth Season is not bad, but judging from the current average 4.32 Goodreads rating – that’s pretty high – I know I’m in a minority position when I state that I think it’s just okay, and not excellent at all.


There are a couple of reasons for this, but the main thing was that Jemisin’s narrating voice didn’t convince me it was a real voice. In other words: not enough suspension of disbelief. In secondary world fantasy, I want to be transported to that other world, and I don’t want to be reminded of 21st century posturing and wittiness of the author’s part.

 Back to the personal. Need to keep things grounded, ha ha.

&

 Uncontrollable tears would be better than uncontrollable vomiting, but hey, you can’t choose your grief.

This ironic, obvious contemporariness of the narrating voice isn’t the only problem I had with Jemisin’s narrative choices. The story of Essun, the revenge mother, is told by a narrator that is different from the omniscient narrator used for the two other pov characters. It feels to me this narrator shouldn’t have the kind of access to the mental states and the past of Essun that it displays, but to go into detail would spoil too much.

There are some inconsistencies in the world-building and plot as well. Some of those might be resolved in book two, but I doubt it. And even if they are, I don’t feel that excuses them in this first book.

The main inconsistency has to do with the author’s need to inject complexity in the fashionable oppression theme. The orogenes’ magic is very powerful: with a bit of training they can kill people instantly and deliberately. They are also capable of protecting entire cities from seismic events. Yet they are oppressed, and regular people even murder their own kids if they find out they are orogenic, instead of using their powers for the good. On top of that some orogenes turn out to have enslaved themselves to protect themselves from regular people’s prosecution. Even highly skilled orogenic magicians keep on believing they are in possible danger from regular people.

Of course the Fulcrum will vilify them in every way possible, because otherwise people will break down its obsidian walls and slaughter everyone inside down to the littlest grit.

But they do not need this kind of protection, as they are the top dogs in any fight with regular people: even inexperienced trainees would vaporize a mob of hundreds in the blink of an eye. Regular people know this too, and so would never attack the Fulcrum in the first place. On the contrary, they need the Fulcrum for their own protection against earthquakes, volcanos and the likes.

In a realistically conceived world, they would be the kings, and not the oppressed servants. Some readers familiar with the book will shout “but the Guardians!” to this criticism, but it looks to me as if those are not always present, or often outnumbered; and they are beatable too, or at least can be circumvented, as the book both shows and hints at.

A character is disowned by his family, but still uses his family’s wealth to pay for over 30 years of surveillance. Another character is appalled and surprised by the use of the derogatory word “rogga” for an orogene by an orogene, but is later shown to have used the same word herself prior to that, in the same fashion. Etc.


N.K. Jemisin’s prose is easy & dull. Not that it’s awful or crooked, but it lacks poetry and depth. Aside from a few references to masturbation, a dildo and threesome sex, this easily could have been marketed as a YA-novel.

Still, there’s an appendix with a glossary: the ultimate token for Serious Fantasy. Yet this glossary is totally redundant: I never felt the need to use it, since all the terms in the book are crystal clear from the context, and even often transparent in and by themselves. “Shake: a seismic movement from the earth.” Really?

I also do not understand fantasy authors trying to invent expletives, but end up using an alternative to “fuck” in similar structures. Jemisin delights her readers with “Shut him right the rust up”, “What the rust?”, “Rust it all”, “so rusting cheerful”, “ruster”, and yes, even “fucking rust” and “rusting fuck”! It always takes me right back to 21st century planet Earth, and off the rusting planet the book is set on. Earthfires!

I’m tempted to say Jemisin needed a better editor, but that’s clearly not the case. The people at Orbit know very well this kind of formula has a huge potential and as such made to right decisions, judging by the rave reviews and the nearly universal acclaim this book has gotten, even in a mainstream publication as The New York Times.


My whining aside, The Fifth Season does have merit. There are a few good and even exciting scenes throughout the book, and even though the world-building is a bit inconsistent, it is still intriguing for the most part. The characters aren’t really deep or original, but they are generally interesting, and the emotions of the grieving mother at the beginning are extremely well done. A bit of a shame that same level of intensity isn’t kept up.

Potential readers should be warned that this is very much the first book in a trilogy. None of the story lines are wrapped up, and it even seems that this entire book is a mere introduction to the actual story that’ll start in book two.

I might give N.K. Jemisin’s other series – The Dreamblood duology and The Inheritance trilogy – a chance in the future, but I don’t think I’ll continue The Broken Earth…

14 responses to “THE FIFTH SEASON – N.K. Jemisin (2015)

  1. Detailed review! This is TBR for me. You haven’t deterred me.completely!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It never occurred to me the paradox of the Orogenes, but you are quite right – I suppose I just give this fantasy setting the benefit of the doubt. It’s a good point though, and I never thought about it that way. I enjoyed this book, and it was my first Jemisin. I actually tried reading the first book of her Inheritance trilogy ages ago and couldn’t get through it, so I think my way would be forward with the sequel to this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • If my TBR wasn’t so big, I’d probably continue this too, but since that pile doesn’t seem to shrink one bit, I have the feeling I’d rather give another series of Jemisin a chance, just for the sake of freshness. On a sidenote, now that I think of it, I’d rather continue this than Abraham’s The Dagger And The Coin.

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    • Btw, why didn’t couldn’t you get through Hundred Thousand Kingdoms?

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  3. Quite an insightful review, thank you!
    I have read only the first two books in Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, and although I enjoyed both I found that book 2 felt quite different from the first – which I loved – because it lacked the same powerful “voice” I heard in the first one. So I would imagine that Jemisin’s writing can suffer from ups and downs, and impact differently on different readers.
    And now I need to see for myself more than ever!

    Liked by 1 person

    • So will you continue the third book of Inheritance?

      You’re right about writer’s ups and downs – only few authors manage to keep up a consistent level, but I guess that’s true for all the Arts.

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  4. Very detailed review! I loved Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, as well as the first Dreamblood book. I’m looking forward to reading this one. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Benjamin Hoffman

    This summarized my feelings exactly. I picked it up because od the rave reviews and was disappointed. The orogenes seems to be killed for no reason. They could literally save everybody. Lol. The narrative voice was difficult too for the reasons you said. I may try to finish the series, but wont read anymore from this author.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the comment! These critical reviews of highly popular books can be a bit lonely to do, so it’s nice to see some of what I wrote confirmed.

      If you do continue the series, it would be cool if you dropped by for another comment, it would be interesting to read your thoughts on 2 and 3, since we are on the same page about 1.

      In retrospect, I think it’s very telling this series just kept on and on winning prizes.

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  6. I have to say this review is spot-on with regard to my own views. Definitely some strong elements in the book, but I found the prose to be flawed and the world-building inconsistent and lacking in depth, and the general critical response surprises me. I will not keep reading on, especially having read in a few places that the first book is supposed to the best best in the trilogy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the comment, much appreciated!

      Initially its succes surprised me too, but the last couple of years I have come to realize that lots of readers simply don’t care for consistency, the latest proof of that being Blake Crouch’s Recursion winning the Goodreads SF readers award for 2019. That novel is generally entertaining, so I can understand people liking it for that, but if you read to engage your mind, it falls flat. I wrote a review is you want the details.

      I also think that lots of readers don’t read to be challenged, but mainly to see their views confirmed, and in the case of The Fifth Season the novel is very obvious about its moral stance: racism is bad and slavery was too, a sentiment that was (and still is) definitely strong among most readers. As such it ticks all the right boxes: it takes a stand against opression, there’s some emotion, it feels contemporary because Jemisin has wordplay on ‘fuck’, and it’s escapist/entertaining too. It also seems ‘special’ formally, with the part that has a you-narrator – something that will be the first time they encountered it for many, many of the book’s readers. So it feels morally right, deep and new. Who doesn’t want to be in on that party?

      I also think Jemisin being black and female plays a role: it’s clear that #OwnVoices literature is trending, and I’m just stating that as fact, not as a judgement. The fact that it was published in the wake of the Puppies saga is key to the success too: it was the right book/trilogy by the right kind of author for a symbolic pushback. The perfect title to pick up the batton from Ann Leckie, with a statement on ethnicity as an added prize, so to say.

      Overall, I think politics (and I mean the full spectrum, from honest expression or difficult soul searching, to empty virtue signalling) have become more and more important important, especially in the States. As the US is the main front of the Culture Wars, that’s understandable, but I do think it sometimes clouds esthetic and artistic judgement – both of writers and of readers. Complexity doesn’t fare well in such a war of opinions.

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  7. Pingback: NINEFOX GAMBIT – Yoon Ha Lee (2016) | Weighing a pig doesn't fatten it.

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