Fantasy literature is traditionally considered a conservative genre. It is dominated by white men – from the writers, fans and critics to the very characters themselves. Its heroes frequently strive to maintain the status quo, rather than challenging the values of the world in which they live in. Indeed, its fanbase has sometimes proved remarkably resistant to change, unwilling to accept new voices or perspectives in what can often be an insular environment.
This is what makes N.K. Jemisin’s novels so refreshing. Not only is she an African-American woman, a rarity amongst the most famous fantasy writers, but her worlds avoid the typical medieval-but-with-magic default setting of the genre. Instead, she crafts innovative and diverse worlds, filled with characters from a vast range of ethnicities and sexualities. These are not characters who blindly accept the status quo: they push against it, attempting to negotiate a world far more nuanced than mere good vs. evil.
The Fifth Season, the first instalment in The Broken Earth trilogy, is set on a continent ironically named the Stillness, where constantly shifting tectonic plates have created an inhospitable world plagued by volcanic winters. Only the orogenes are able to control the unstable earth, and yet most people are terrified by their immense power. Consequently, they are kept under close watch, forced to live under strict rules and only use their power for the good of others.
There are obvious parallels to slavery, but Jemisin doesn’t push this analogy too far; as self-evident as some of the similarities are, they never intrude upon the world she has created. Jemisin paints a vivid picture of what it’s like to live in a society that simultaneously absorbs and rejects you, demonstrating the fascinating and horrible result of someone internalising that lie.
The structure of The Fifth Season is ingenious. As is the literary fashion today, we enter Jemisin’s story through multiple characters’ points of view. The twists and surprises are enjoyable, but never supersede characterisation and development.Yet, it does not feel perfect; like many books (and indeed films) these days, it is obviously interested in setting up a sequel, which prevents The Fifth Season from telling a satisfying, self-contained story.
Equally Jemisin’s concessions to classic fantasy tropes are the weakest parts of her book. Most irritating is the seemingly obligatory use of meaningless gobbledegook to describe something that can easily be described by existing words. It’s one of fantasy’s most irritating fallbacks, and occasionally makes it difficult to appreciate the story, hidden beneath a layer of impenetrable nonsense. Thankfully, Jemisin ensures her characters always remain at the forefront, so the reader never gets too lost in the confusion.
The Fifth Season is a welcome change of pace from a genre that is often too happy to be stagnant. With dynamic characters and a solid premise, Jemisin crafts an engaging tale that feels genuinely relevant. It may not be perfect, but I’ll still be getting my hands on its followup, The Obelisk Gate, as soon as humanly possible.
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