I kind of hate myself for not delving into this book sooner on my quest to read all of the best fantasy novels I can get my hands on. This novel, the first in the Broken Earth series by N.K. Jemisin, is probably one of the best fantasy/sci-fi books I’ve ever read.
In another blog post about my marriage proposal, I scratched the surface of Tolkien’s concept of a “secondary world,” from his essay, “On Fairystories.” Quick recap: Tolkien basically laid out the basis for high fantasy, for the power of an author’s ability to create worlds that completely immerse a reader into a story. There’s no need to question why something is, or question how it relates to the “real” or “primary” world, because it….well, it simply is.
Here’s an excerpt from the essay (I’m going to replace “he” with “they,” because I like to think Tolkien might have been down with gender-neuteral pronouns if he were alive today: “The story-maker proves a successful ‘sub-creator.’ They make a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what they relate is ‘true’ : it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside.”
This was a bit of a long way to get to my point: Reading The Fifth Season feels like I’m under a spell. You become completely lost in Jemisin’s world, here in the Stillness, where generations have struggled to survive past Seasons, times of what are essentially apocalypses. The society is broken into a variety of “comms,” a caste system, races and species.
As comms suffer through the unpredictable and volatile nature of the planet, plagued by quakes and other disasters, they often call on the help of the outcasts: the Orogenes, who have an inherent connection to the planet, as well as the ability to control and move energy. They help solve so many problems, but they are ironically treated with such disdain and hate — and even darker secrets await.
While at some points it’s necessary to describe the way certain things work in this vast society, you by default know the same as our protagonist.
Whenever a new word pops up, whenever a new societal concept arises, you either use context clues to figure it out along the way, or you’re learning at the same pace as the other characters. Jemisin doesn’t insult the intelligence of her readers. She doesn’t over-explain details to the point of monotony.
She blends intrigue and discovery of her intricate world in such a fascinating way. This is further strengthened by the way she switches back and forth between different narrative points of view, depending on where we are in the novel. I absolutely love when she switches into second-person — this is becoming one of my favorite literary tools to read.
While I talked about the magical, dream-like effect created with this tool in my last review about the Night Circus, in this novel, it serves to connect you to the protagonist’s experience. It’s a bit difficult to explain. You don’t exactly become the one dealing with her horrid ordeal, but you feel as though you’re looking at the world through her eyes, feeling all of the events as they happen in real time. It reinforces that Secondary World element really well.
And the expertness with which Jemisin presents this world is exactly why this book was addicting. You become engrossed in learning how this society works and unraveling the mysteries of an entirely new place. You crave justice for the Orogenes, and you crave knowing how they will break out of this cycle of being trapped in society’s tendrils.
Most of all, you crave how our protagonist will ultimately pave the way for a better life. This novel ended on a cliff-hanger (heh), and I can’t wait to dive into the next one.