“Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we?”
The Fifth Season is the first part of The Broken Earth Trilogy and while the book does have some stand-out moments and a unique structure, its also riddled with issues that are hard to look past. N.K. Jemisin’s writing style is an instant Marmite; you’ll either love it or hate it. And while the book does grow into its premise, right up to a subsequent “lightbulb” moment, the opening is particularly rough around the edges and unnecessarily edgy.
So what is The Fifth Season actually about? Well, the story depicts the end of the world first, with page after page of exposition about how this occurred and what followed before settling down with its three main characters.
Essun is a woman living an ordinary life whose whole world is turned upside down when her husband brutally murders their son and kidnaps their daughter. Essun finds herself off on a fetch quest to bring her daughter back, joined by the unlikely and mysterious Hoa along the way.
The second story follows a young girl called Damaya, who’s taken by one of the Guardians in this world to hone her untapped magical skills at a school. Once she reaches the Fulcrum though, she soon discovers that all is not what it seems.
The third and final narrative follows a rather prickly woman called Syenide, a girl whom I can only describe as Rings of Power’s Galadriel and Willow’s Kit rolled into one. She’s incredibly hard to warm to, she’s not very empathetic and some of her justifications for certain actions leave a lot to be desired. She heads off on a journey with ‘Baster that takes her along to the coast of this world and beyond.
During the midway point of this one, bouncing between its three strong female protagonist POV chapters, the story does open up quite considerably. Some of the segments along the way are fascinating world-builders, despite the frustrating lack of explanation for some elements. For example, we learn early on that there are magic wielders who are classified using rings, who also use the environment to channel their powers… but how does that work exactly? The book never really explains that.
Having said that though, if you can stick with The Fifth Season and get to around 3/4 of the way through this, the book rewards you with some genuinely surprising plot twists. These hit like a sledgehammer to the chest and when the lightbulb moments clicks over how all these characters are connected, it makes the book that much better.
However you also have to really work to get to those sections, with long, winding chapters with very little in the way of plot development as characters move from point A to point B. Anyone who has read George R.R. Martins’ A Song Of Ice and Fire books – particularly the later ones – will know this feeling all too well.
As a result, The Fifth Season doesn’t quite justify its 448 page length. This could very easily have been slashed down by around 100 pages and not lose anything, while I strongly believe the final three chapters should have been edited and reworked in a different way to make the final reveal about a certain character hit that much harder.
Speaking of hitting harder, this book is very political. While it makes sense in the context of the themes this book is gunning for, at times it actually breaks the world completely. One character comes out as gay, which has absolutely no foreshadowing and feels extremely jarring.
All the usual “modern” tropes are here in abundance too, including females having all the urgency, males relegated to villains, uninteresting side characters or gay. It’s a shame too because the world is fascinating and crying out for more explanation. There are floating obelisks, various different comms, teasing mentions of the Arctics and some fascinating creatures like Stone Eaters introduced.
Ultimately though, The Fifth Season is a book that lives and dies by its narrative gimmick and interesting worldbuilding. The divisive politics are ham-fisted in late on and almost break the book completely, while Syenite in particular is just not very fun to read. While it’s not a bad book and definitely has its moments, it’s not a great fantasy epic either, falling somewhere in the realm of frustrating mediocrity, even with its great twists.
Verdict - 6/10