The 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…