Book review of The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin
There are no spoilers in this review.
This is the first book of N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. Recently the third book in this series, The Stone Sky, won the Hugo award for best novel, making it the third book in the series to win that award. That’s right, every book in this series has won the Hugo award for best novel, three years in a row. Wow! No author has ever done that before. So yeah, my expectations were pretty much through the roof on this one.
I’m delighted to report that all the hype was all fully deserved because this was one of the best books I’ve ever read. In fact, it was so good that I immediately went ahead and got the next one immediately afterward and started on it right away. That’s probably the greatest praise I can bestow upon it because I almost never read the other books in series right away. I think the last time that happened was when I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy back when I was a teenager.
The plot centers around three different stories involving three different women who all live in an imagined future Earth in which some cataclysmic past event has led to the rise of massive periodic earthquakes (“shakes”) that destroy everything every few thousand years. The periods afterward are called Seasons and can last hundreds or even thousands of years. Humanity has somehow managed to survive through all of this, but life is a much more tribal and brutal affair.
In this future world, there are people called orogenes who can control the movement of the earth, such as causing or quelling shakes. The book begins with an extended prologue in which a super-powerful orogene causes a massive rift in the planet’s main continent, creating a shake so massive it appears it will bring about the end of the world, or at least of humanity as a species. The three women, one a young child, one a young adult, and one middle aged, all are orogenes. Their stories deal with their struggles to survive in the short term, in a world in which regular people fear and hate them for their powerful abilities, as well as the question of how, or whether, humanity can survive the Rift.
The writing quality of The Fifth Season is absolutely top-notch, on a par with and perhaps even better than Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (see my review of American Gods). I reviewed the latter recently and had expected it to serve as the measuring stick against which I compared future writers, but now I’m not sure. One of the characters is written in second person, which is rarely done and very tricky to pull off, but here it is done splendidly. The characters in The Fifth Season are wonderfully developed and as compelling as any I’ve read, and the plot, while at times just the tiniest bit slow for my taste, was very engaging. And the world-building was as grand in scope and as meticulously planned as anything I’ve read.
I think the thing that bothered me the most in the book was the author’s use of words like “rust” as expletives, for example, “What the rust is going on here?” or “Evil earth!” This is probably the only aspect of world-building that didn’t work for me, it just came off as a bit overdone. But when that’s the worst complaint you can come up with, you’re talking about a rusting amazing book (see, it doesn't really work). I also thought the cover design was kind of generic, nothing bad but nothing special either.
Lastly, I need to mention that the performance by narrator Robin Miles (I listened to the audiobook version) was absolutely amazing. Again, I’d thought George Guidall’s reading of American Gods would be my standard-bearer for narration for quite some time, but Ms. Miles found a level 11 on the dial I had not previously been aware existed. Bravo!
I highly encourage everyone to read this book right away, and if you are on Audible definitely opt for that version!
Science fiction writer