The Staggering Truths in N. K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth Series: “The Fifth Season” and “The Obelisk Gate”

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Myra here.

These two novels have been receiving a huge deal of hype over the past several months, and I knew I wanted to read them before the year ends. As we celebrate fantasy, the legendary, and the mythical, I felt that this is as good time as any to discover for myself what the fuss is about.


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The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth #1)

Written byN. K. Jemisin
Published by: Orbit, 2015 ISBN: 0316229296 (ISBN13: 9780316229296) Literary Awards: Hugo Award for Best Novel (2016), Nebula Award Nominee for Best Novel (2015), Locus Award Nominee for Best Fantasy Novel (2016), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Fantasy (2015)
Bought a copy of the book. 

I have to confess that I am not what one would call a sci-fi geek. Too often, I get impatient with the world-building aspect that I can’t get past it. Too many unfamiliar names and locations, too much patience required to get acquainted with terminologies that are peculiar to a particular place at a fullsizerender-cspecific time that I may not really care too much about. Jemisin changed all that. This book (and correct me if I am mistaken sci-fi aficionados) is the real sci-fi shiznit – complete with its own detailed history organized according to Seasons, marked by major cataclysmic events. A full description can be seen in Appendix 1, whereas Appendix 2 contains a glossary of terms used “in all quartents of the stillness.” Ordinarily, I would have turned that right off. So it does say a lot about Nemisin’s literary skill that her attention to form and structure is also matched by her attention to depth and brilliance in characterization that each one literally shines. Her dedication alone made my hackles (if I had them) rise:

For all those who have to fight for the respect that everyone else is given without question.

In The Fifth Season, the reader gets to hear three distinct voices: the 42-year old Essun whose young son’s dead body in their home has brought her to a state of catatonia, while her husband, presumed killer of said dead son, has left their comm (community) with their oldest daughter in tow. Then there is the young girl Damaya, shunned by her own family, isolated in a barn, filthy and reported to the Fulcrum’s Guardian who took her in, ostensibly to be trained, so that she would no longer be a danger to herself, and to others. There is also the “cut and polished” Syenite, ambitious, relentlesslyfullsizerender-a driven, cold and calculating, clear-sighted (albeit, hopelessly and unwittingly limited) in her goals. Halfway through the story, I was wondering how all these seemingly-disparate threads and the equally strong and riveting female characters would come together in the end – leaving me floored (jawdrop is the word I was searching for) as to the studied ease in which Jemisin managed to pull it off. This ingenious integration is a hallmark of a master storyteller at the top of her form, churning out pain in small doses so that it does not overwhelm, but enough for the reader to see that the chasm down there is infinite.

I am also taken by the amount of discipline and rigour required to master one’s orogeny – the term used here for magic – yet it is more than the Harry Potter kind, because it is tied to Father Earth himself, the same one who bestowed such gifts while at the same time loathing the gifted themselves – their power a yoke that marks them as different and deserving of the ordinary person’s unparalleled loathing – always hating those who are odd and potentially dangerous, nothing but a rogga (derogatory term used for the orogenes). Over and beyond the special powers manifested by the orogenes, it is really the stone eaters that fascinated me to no end: their ancient quiet timelessness, and sense of astounding loyalty that protects and ultimately consumes the very object of its obsession (love, as they call it).

Then there is Alabaster, immensely powerful and hopelessly broken, unwitting mentor and lover to Syenite. He is like no other character I have ever read. I was especially struck by how he described his connection to the Earth, and how much it takes from him, diminishing while paradoxically magnifying who he is:

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Most importantly, there is luminous, free-spirited Innon whose laughter rumbles and who is Universe personified. He reminds me of Gannicus in my favourite TV series, Spartacus – except, magnified a hundredfold.

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The inevitable loss in the end has unraveled me completely, like a soundless scream stuck in my throat, with the moon nothing but a harsh mistress missed by Father Earth who is determined to kill all of its progeny in its varied, multi-faceted life forms.


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The Obelisk Gate (The Broken Earth #2)

Written byN. K. Jemisin
Published by: Orbit, 2016 ISBN: 0356508366 (ISBN13: 9780356508368) 
Bought a copy of the book. Book photos taken by me. 

This second book is way easier to follow than the first since (1) the reader is somewhat more familiarized with the terminologies, powers, location in this universe, (2) the narrative while still told from multiple perspectives (with the unreliable narrator making me doubt and wonder about its motives), made easier by the timeline being somewhat the same. In fact, if anything it has made me want to re-read the first book, this time with an intimate knowledge of this world and the key players driving the story forward. Similar to the first book, the dedication here is equally staggering:

To those who have no choice but to prepare their children for the battlefield.

I believe that it is little things like these that make the reader have a more informed inkling of the depths the story may be drawn from. Again, there is much grit in this novel as Essun’s voice permeates through most of the narrative. This time, her daughter Nassun is pictured more completely. The young girl who had to grow up quickly, as she manipulates her own father to refrain from killing her, as she gradually comes to terms with her own being: the self-loathing mixed with so much reveling in the wake of unrestrained power fully embraced – desired and loathed in equal measure. The stone eaters also become even more defined in terms of what drives them – whether they are enemies, allies or neither. A great deal, however, still remains a mystery, particularly Hoa and what he intends to do in the end, with the palpably-apologetic tone he often assumes when the writing is angled from his perspective. If I were to describe the general feel of this series, it would be that of brokenness and rage and the tenacity despite it all; the in-your-face pushing back that goes beyond retaliation and self-preservation but the very basic nature of simply being.

I have also read somewhere about how brilliantly Jemisin tackles gender-fluidity in most of her novels – not just in this series. I must say that Tonkee’s character, not to mention Alabaster, showed me how humanity is captured – beyond just the trite and tokenistic approach to gender and sexuality in narratives which attempt to share keenly-felt truths, rather than mere cardboard cut-outs with neatly-labeled categories.

And now, I will have to wait until August 2017 for The Stone Sky to come out. Really looking forward to it though. It does appear that it will be a mother-and-daughter fight to the death in the end. We shall see how that goes. Now, I am keen on reading Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy. Anybody who’s read the series? Let me know if you enjoyed it.

Meanwhile, here is Silje Nergaard singing The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Enjoy.

3 Comments on The Staggering Truths in N. K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth Series: “The Fifth Season” and “The Obelisk Gate”

  1. This is the best review I’ve read of The Fifth Season so far. I’m definitely going to read it next year.

    Liked by 1 person

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