Well, shit. It appears that I’ve lost what was supposed to be my most recent Reader’s Notebook entry. I remember writing it and swore I posted it. (The books included were N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became and John Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.) Since this entry references one of those books, I was looking back for the post to link to and could not find it. I checked the local folder where I keep all my posts after I put them online and it is not there. So looks like I never posted it and must have deleted my draft. My bad. This post should still make sense, other than the one refence.
The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin
The Obelisk Gate – N.K. Jemisin
The Stone Sky – N.K. Jemisin
Inspired by reading Jemisin’s The City We Became, I decided to tackle her The Broken Earth trilogy. My intention was to sprinkle those books in with others I planned to read. However, I enjoyed the first book so much that I plowed right through the next two in short order.
It’s been a long time since I have attempted to read a fantasy novel. As I said in my notes on The City We Became, that book felt more like a Stephen King novel where elements of fantasy were swirled into a more traditional, modern thriller.
This trilogy, however, sits more firmly in what I expect for fantasy. It takes place in another time – Jemisin never overtly identifies it, but it seems to be in a far future era after a massive ecological disaster has ravaged the earth – in a world that has elements that are somewhat recognizable. It is populated by humans, but there are different kinds of humans with very different abilities. Technology is much more limited, but there are hints of advanced technologies from a long-ago past. It’s not quite hobbits and elves in Middle Earth, but I would assume fans of traditional fantasy were comfortable with the framework she placed the story in.
In Jemisin’s imagined “future” earth, the continents have all been shoved back together, the moon has escaped from close earth orbit, and life on earth is in constant danger due to seismic activity. There are near constant earthquakes, volcanic activity, and tsunamis that wreak havoc. When these are especially strong they create “Fifth Seasons,” or extended winters brought about when weather patterns are interrupted, causing food shortages and mass starvation. Sometimes these Seasons last a matter of months, sometimes years, while others have lasted hundreds or thousands of years. The inhabitants of earth have learned to always be preparing for the next Season, stocking away food, water, and other supplies needed to attempt to survive.
One group of humans in Jemisin’s world are called orogenes, people who are able to tap into the seismic power of the earth. They can both control that power, stopping earthquakes and eruptions before they happen, and convert it into wizard-like abilities. Because of the mystery of how they tap into the earth’s power, orogenes are viewed with suspicion and contempt. Children who demonstrate orogenic powers are routinely killed to prevent them from harming their relatives and neighbors. The lucky ones are taken for formal training and then used to help keep the world as safe as can be.
At the center of these stories is an orogene named Essen. We learn about her upbringing, her training to be an imperial orogene, her mission with her mentor that reveals how she is more powerful that the average orogene, and their subsequent adventures. Eventually she has to flee for her life, taking on a new identity. She starts a family and when her children begin to show orogenic abilities, her husband, who is not an orogene, kills their son and flees with their daughter. Just as this happens there is a great rift in the earth, causing an unprecedented level of seismic activity that seems likely to start a Season that could last for thousands of years. As the world slowly begins to wind down, Essen begins a quest to both rescue her daughter and kill her husband in revenge for his act of murder.
During her travels she falls in with other humans who have strange powers. She stumbles into a community that is uniquely designed to survive the Season. Meanwhile her daughter, Nassun discovers more about her own orogenic powers while her father seeks a place where she can be trained to tamp down those powers and “be normal.” Jemisin also reveals more about the history of this earth, how it came to be what it is and the dangers that the upcoming Season holds for humanity. There is the obligatory great battle, and a final quest in which both Nassun and Essen race to be the first to save the earth, but in very different ways.
I’ve tried not to get too deep into the weeds of the stories, but that still feels like a pretty shitty summation of this series. Despite the poor overview, for the most part I really, really enjoyed these books. They cut through a lot of what turns me off about fantasy while still being true to what one expects of a fantasy story. I think what I enjoyed most about them – aside from the overall story which is really good – is how Jemisin writes as if the characters are of the current moment. Yes, she invents all kinds of new elements for her world, including enough phrases and words to require a list of definitions in the back of each book. But her characters speak like they were picked up from 21st century earth and thrown into whatever place and time the stories reside in.
I did have some issues with an aside in the third book that took a huge jump back in time. While it was vital to making the entire story work and understanding the motivations of one character, it was a bit hard to follow. Especially when Jemisin revealed that a handful of characters that had appeared at different moments in the series were actually three different characters appearing under different names. Or maybe three or four. I couldn’t keep straight who was who when this became apparent.
Jemisin also tackles a lot of modern concepts, like racism, stereotyping, and the existence of structural impediments that prevent equality, but without being ham-handed about it or making it obvious that she is MAKING A STATEMENT. Whether in her imagined world or the America of 2021, she makes it clear that just because people look different, sound different, have different abilities, or follow different cultural touchtones, there is never an excuse for exclusion or persecution.