Broken Earth, Broken Characters: A Review of N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season

fifth season_0

The Fifth Season (2015)
Written by: N.K. Jemisin
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 512 (Trade Paperback)
Series: Book One of The Broken Earth
Publisher: Orbit

Why I Chose It: As lead up to the Hugo Awards, and also because I have a strange relationship with Jemisin’s writing. I very often love the individual scenes but have a harder time connecting with her books as a whole. Previously, I’ve read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and The Killing Moon, both books that I liked well enough, but neither of which made me push on to the later entries in their series. I wanted to see if The Fifth Season would be the one to suck me in.

Premise:

THIS IS THE WAY THE WORLD ENDS… FOR THE LAST TIME.

A season of endings has begun.

It starts with the great red rift across the heart of the world’s sole continent, spewing ash that blots out the sun.

It starts with death, with a murdered son and a missing daughter.

It starts with betrayal, and long dormant wounds rising up to fester.

This is the Stillness, a land long familiar with catastrophe, where the power of the earth is wielded as a weapon. And where there is no mercy.

Review will include spoilers. All the spoilers. You have been warned.

Discussion: I had a hard time getting through the Fifth Season, which I didn’t expect. Multiple POV and multiple story lines are always kind of hit or miss for me. There’s inevitably one story line that bores me, and Damaya’s was it.

I understood why Jemisin showed these (three) women: to show one entering the system, another trapped within the system, and one freed from the Fulcrum as the world ends.

Damaya’s arc—a child’s story, was fundamentally less interesting to me. For the same reason, I bounced off of Karen Miller’s Godspeaker, which also begins with a powerful child being given away by her parents. Their stories are all waiting for something to happen. In Godspeaker, which told the story straight through, from childhood on, I couldn’t get past that long, drawn-out beginning. The Fifth Season didn’t have that problem for me, since it had two other interesting characters to follow and care about.

Sadly, at the same point in the book where I realized Damaya was boring to me, (p. 150 or so) I figured out that these three women were actually one woman at different points in her life. And that really aggravated me because:

  1. It felt like I had my fascinating characters halved. Syenite is Essun so there’s no hope of these two fascinating characters coming into conflict. Worse, Syenite the sharp-tempered four-ringer in the heart of the Fulcrum becomes Essun, a numbed-by-life-and-tragedy nomad.
  2. Story tension dropped sharply. Schaffa obviously will not maim or kill Damaya because Damaya becomes Syenite, a four-ringer in good health. Syenite’s disillusionment with the Fulcrum obviously doesn’t lead to anything that gets her killed, and her relationship with Alabaster (who I found fascinating) is not going to go anywhere because Essun marries Jija at some point.

The ultimate effect is to turn an SF novel about the end of the world into a biography of a single person.

If I were reading The Fifth Season purely for entertainment, I would have set it aside at this point for “later”. Since I wanted to read the Hugo nominees, I continued on, only to be rewarded with another similar hiccup. Tonkee turns out to be Binof, and the same effect occurred: a dwindling of the world. Usually, one of the things I love most about fantasy is the sense of a widening and more and more fascinating world. In The Fifth Season, probably appropriately, Jemisin’s narrative collapses inward along with the world she’s writing about.

Also unsatisfactory—that Essun/Syenite/Damaya is so reactive. Anything of importance, someone else had to tell her. Schaffa told her about the orogene system (truth and lies mixed); Binof exposed the secret socket at the heart of the Fulcrum, which catapulted Damaya’s change to Syenite. Syenite’s eyes were further opened by traveling with Alabaster who made no bones of his hatred for the Fulcrum. Given all these clues, Syenite did nothing with them but went into hiding as Essun until Jija murdered their son, and an earthquake precipitated her moving on. Then Tonkee and Alabaster and Hoa all explained more to her.

Essun didn’t even get the last say in her own book: it was Alabaster who had the last line. Alabaster who had the big idea. (It was a great idea, I liked that immensely.)

I hated that she was incurious about everything, even as I recognized that Schaffa and the Fulcrum system had beaten curiosity out of her—they couldn’t afford to have questions asked. I found her kind of flat—but really the woman she was should have been chockfull of PTSD and depression after losing not one but three of her children, one at her own hands to save him from a worse fate. Losing her lover; having another husband kill her youngest child…. She lived in a hard and terrible world and if you cared passionately, you’d be burned out in a week. So logically, I accepted that her character made sound psychological sense, yet still wanted her to be both curious and passionate about something, anything.

I was annoyed that the story didn’t so much end as stop. It got all the players together on the stage and laid out the problems facing them, but that was about it. I read serials far more often than sequels, primarily because I like closure. In serials, books might be part of a greater story line, but each individual book has its own complete arc.

In conclusion: So, given all the givens above, what do I think about the book as a whole? Am I glad I read it? Is it Hugo-worthy?

My answer to that is “yes,” though it’s an intellectual yes, rather than an emotionally satisfied yes. I think that satisfaction will only come after the sequel concludes. She’s succeeded in that, at the very least. I will pick up the sequel to The Fifth Season.

The world-building is gorgeous and thorough; every facet of this world feels permeated with Jemisin’s concepts of the fifth season—from how would a society survive on a seismically active world like this (by a meme-like stone lore, by a series of unshakeable rules, by being always prepared to flee) to the very believable seismology. Everything feels like it fits.

The world-building is amazing. Orogenes, guardians, the obelisks and stone eaters—all wonderful and well-thought out. And it takes some thinking to have your most powerful members of society also being the least powerful. I haven’t seen that conundrum this well done since Kat Whitfield’s Benighted. I love the name Fulcrum with all its connotations of changing the world if Essun finds a lever big enough.

Plot-wise, the stakes are enormous, even if right now it feels focused very tightly on Essun’s experiences.

On a technical level, the writing is smooth and evocative, even when it’s pouring new terminology into our brains without ever taking the time to explain. We still follow along. That’s impressive. Also, I usually dislike the second person POV and here it just moved smoothly across my consciousness, a good choice to help show the reader Essun’s distant, numbed state of being.

It’s a big concept book beautifully executed. That it’s not to my personal taste doesn’t change how well done it is. I’ll pick up the next one to see where the story goes.

12 Comments

  • Nancy O'Toole Meservier August 3, 2016 at 7:33 am

    So sorry this didn’t work for you! It was one of my favorite reads of last year. It’s true that it didn’t grab me as easily as both The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and The Killing Moon, but I ended up really enjoying it. Interestingly, I also saw the three-protagonists-are-the-same-person twist coming (I suspected something was up when I saw we were dealing with three different timelines), but to me it was more satisfying to see my suspicions confirmed. I’ve also never seen the second person perspective used better, and for such a long period of time. It’s something I usually encounter in short fiction, and even then it can feel gimmicky, but not here. I felt like it really made me empathize with Essun even more.

    I suspect this will be the Hugo winner this year. It seems like the book that the most people have enjoyed from what I’ve seen.

    Reply
    • Lane Robins August 3, 2016 at 8:29 pm

      What’s crazy is that as critical as I was of The Fifth Season, it’s the one I’m rooting for. It’s definitely the most ambitious of the books (that I read) and I really do intend to read the next two books. I’m finding that the character(s) are lingering with me more than I thought they would.

      I utterly agree on the use of 2nd person. It’s super fluid here, and it really works. As Shara mentions below–obliquely–2nd person works really well to show a psychologically disconnected state of being. The main character in Warchild, whose name I have forgotten at the moment, and Essun both share that self-protective disconnection.

      Reply
      • Shara White August 3, 2016 at 9:19 pm

        Jos! His name is Jos Musey!

        Sorry. I’m not a fangirl of that book AT ALL.***

        What are the other books you’ve read that were nominated?

        *** = I didn’t even have to look up his name. 🙂

        Reply
        • Nancy O'Toole Meservier August 3, 2016 at 9:36 pm

          Must read Warchild…

          Reply
          • Shara White August 3, 2016 at 10:45 pm

            HELL YES YOU SHOULD. Ahem…. Hey, if you ever want to do a theme MFT, what about your favorite book ever?

          • Nancy O'Toole Meservier August 4, 2016 at 6:43 pm

            This is weird. For some reason it’s not letting me respond to your comment.

            Anyway, that’s not a bad idea. We could also do one based around a genre (favorite SF book for example) 🙂

        • Lane Robins August 3, 2016 at 10:33 pm

          I read the Butcher and am most of the way through Uprooted. Seveneves is just too big to tackle, and I haven’t read the first Ancillary book yet.

          Reply
          • Shara White August 3, 2016 at 10:44 pm

            The first Ancillary book definitely has a leading curve, but it deserves its accolades.

  • Shara White August 3, 2016 at 1:54 pm

    So I’ve read all of Jemisin’s novels EXCEPT The Shadowed Sun, but even that is waiting patiently on my Kindle. The Fifth Season was a bit tough at first for me to follow, especially due to the prologue, so much so that when I finished the book, I went back to the prologue with fresh eyes.

    That said, I really enjoyed this. I also assumed we were getting one character from multiple timelines, but I didn’t latch on to it being the same woman in all three timelines. Yet I was engrossed, and 25% into the book I went ahead and pre-ordered the sequel. The structure was fascinating, and I suspect will be immensely rewarding upon a re-read. I’m looking forward to seeing where the story goes next.

    But will it win a Hugo? I’d love for it to! The other books I’ve read that were nominated (Leckie and Novik) are very different, and Novik won the Nebula. It’ll be interesting to see how it shakes out, but if I had to pick, I think the Jemisin would get the edge because of what it’s doing on so many levels.

    Oh, and my favorite second-person POV narrative? Warchild by Karin Lowachee. The first 30 or so pages of that book is written in second person, and it’s amazing, especially in light of the rest of the book, when it becomes more and more clear that Lowachee is intentionally changing tense to reflect something very important about the character’s state of mind. Which, I should note, is what Jemisin did here to great effect as well.

    Reply
  • Casey August 3, 2016 at 7:35 pm

    I haven’t read this yet but I think I’ll be bumping it up the to-read list! I want to be able to give it the amount of attention that it deserves and after I finish my current Big Book (Ada Palmer’s TOO LIKE THE LIGHTNING), I will most likely be diving in.

    Reply
    • Lane Robins August 3, 2016 at 8:30 pm

      It’s definitely worth the read. Jemisin may have hit some of my pet peeves, but there’s no denying it’s a powerfully written book.

      Reply
    • Shara White August 3, 2016 at 9:19 pm

      Okay, I totally want to hear what you think of TOO LIKE THE LIGHTNING. I keep going back and forth on that one.

      Oh, and definitely give this a read. It’s so wonderfully rich.

      Reply

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