The Broken Earth

by N. K. Jemisin

The Fifth Season

Rating: ★★★★

Solid. Jemisin writes apocalyptic fantasy -- normal enough -- but she sets it in a world which is fairly used to apocalypses. So you don't just see an empire crumbling under the backlash from world-ending magic, you see this interpreted through a cultural lens where it is normal and expected that every couple of centuries something like this will happen, and society builds around this. Everyone has a bug-out bag stashed, the community knows when to close its gates and start planting in the village green.

The setting is disorienting at first because of this -- elements of it seem pre-industrial, even medieval, and things Jemisin mentions -- household legal documents, formal educational institutes for village professionals, lubricant known only as lubricant -- seem anachronistic. It becomes more clear, later on, that we are actually living in a modern -- or even futuristic -- setting, in which mankind has indeed built great wonders, and even retains some technological ability, but orders itself conservatively. When the next Season comes, the machines will rust and warp and break, the smooth roads will crumple, the infrastructure between the walled communities will collapse. So you build simple houses cut into the earth, you guard the aquifer, you don't trust the great electric-lit roads the latest rulers have established. It's a nice bit of worldbuilding, only spoiled by Jemisin's efforts to over-explain it in the (seemingly entirely unnecessary) interludes, and plays well with her evocations of the terrifying power of the earth.

As plot structure goes, the three-lens view of a woman's life (I cottoned on as soon as I saw we had three characters who were all female orogenes of different ages) was at least more interesting than the sequential version would have been, and better than the cycle of secondary characters that many fantasy series fall back on for their secondary plotlines and scene-breaks. I'm not sure what the sequel will do to avoid simple linearity, without generating new characters or falling into similar traps. There are enough mysteries resolved that I'm happy with the book, and enough left dangling to tempt me into reading further.

The Obsidian Gate

Rating: ★★★

A slight slump in the series, perhaps. With the novelty of Jemisin's world-building wearing off, and her previous timescattered multi-lens view of Essun having completed its cycle, the second book has to rely on the story. The story certainly isn't terrible, but it does somewhat feel like filler, ticking over for the next book. If we'd missed the background to Nassun's journey and only discovered her when Essun did, would that really have detracted? Things have been discussed and displayed in Castrima, but mostly we seem to have been laying threads which will be resolved later on. It seems at the moment slightly redundant that both mother and child are being coaxed into catching the moon by stone eaters.

The interludes are still around, and still annoying. They have been joined by some short airy passages at the start of all the chapters, which wisp vaguely about Essun. I don't like these, they make for stagnant, purposeless paragraphs, tarnishing Jemisin's otherwise clean prose.

Perhaps this is the point, but it seems odd that even with all the power and control the obelisks handed her, Essun did not think of doing anything to ease the apocalypse. Is it too hard to still the Rift and pull the ash from the air, or does she simply not care to save the world?

The Stone Sky

Rating: ★★

This one really dragged. We're cycling through three stories: Essun, dawdling along with the Castrima refugees for no particular reason; Nassun, headed to Corepoint for no clear reason; Hoa, recounting life before the Shattering. None of them really work very well, and the muddle of purposelessness is a lot to wade through for slight reward.

Essun's story seemed entirely lacking in story -- the trials of Castrima were nothing to her, because Hoa could skip her away anytime if that became necessary (and indeed several other people if he wanted, which raises the question of whether any of the suffering was necessary at all). She mostly seemed to be hanging around waiting for Nassun to get into position for the climax, and having some entirely unromantic sex with Lerna to fill the time.

Nassun's story I think was meant to sell us on the bond between Nassun and Shaffa, to motivate the conflict at the climax. The lack of any significant shared experiences meant this didn't work for me, Jemisin seemed more to insist on it than explain it. I didn't have a good handle on who Nassun was meant to be, having changed so rapidly over the two books she's in, so the story doesn't work as a character progression.

Hoa's story was perhaps the strongest, but it felt like the opening quarter of a different story -- setting the scene and building up to the big disaster, before we get to explore the aftermath. Reversing the order of this isn't necessarily bad, but in amongst the two other slow, aimless plots of this book it has a lot of weight to carry, and it doesn't quite manage it. A lot of the backstory he fills in seems a bit over-the-top: why were the Neiss so reviled as to be subhuman to this universalist hippy culture? What energy demands did they have which their current system could not meet? Why does the Earth consistently mete out subtle ironic punishments and goads instead of just killing people (like Nassun) who are problematic?

My opinion of the trilogy has soured a bit. The first is genuinely good, but the two that follow are coasting on the momentum of the first, with a lot of content that feels like filler, and an ending that doesn't have the pathos it wanted.