Ben Reviews: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

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The Fifth Season is a book that his been on my radar for quite a while. But whenever it came time to choose a new book, I always found something that I thought I would like more. The Fifth Season sounded a little boring and a little depressing. Most “back of the book” synopses you’ll find are very light on details. There is a reason for this, but it doesn’t give you a lot to go on when trying to decide what to read.

The story is divided into three perspectives that weave together masterfully. To talk about what those perspectives are, and how they relate to one another, gets into the realm of spoilers. One of these perspectives uses the darkest art in all of English Literature, present-tense-second-person. The narrator often engages in snark and sarcasm as well, which I found initially off putting. As I kept reading, though, the spell started to work its magic on me.

The more I learned about Jemisin’s world, the more I wanted to learn about Jemisin’s world. My initial impression that the book was boring was quickly set aside as the world building captured me. This isn’t a compliment that I give lightly, by the way. While I’m a big fan of the sci-fi and fantasy genres, I find most stories have very shallow world building that isn’t worth my time to learn much about. For example, I love Dune, but the worldbuilding falls apart if you think about it for a few minutes. Tolkein has long been my gold standard for fantasy world building. And while I wouldn’t say Jemisin is on Tolkein’s level, she gets a lot closer than most.

The Earth of The Broken Earth trilogy feels lived in. The language can be a little silly at times. Fantasy curse words are never going to work for me. It always feels like a Saturday morning cartoon that can’t have real swear words in it. But a lot of the invented terms for locations, peoples, and scientific phenomena are solid. Jemisin has obviously done an incredible amount of research on seismology and geology. She made me see a science that I previously had absolutely no interest in through fresh eyes.

The mysteries and the lore of the world kept me reading through emotional moments that otherwise would have prompted me to take a break. Because while I would not describe the book as depressing, it is quite heavy. Jemisin does not pull any punches. At times, the characters’ journeys are absolutely miserable. Critically, in spite of this, Jemisin gives her characters reasons to keep going, and you a reason to keep reading. There is growth amidst the misery. I had faith that a deeper understanding of the world and the characters lurked on the next page.

With that said, though, it can be a bit much for some. I think a few content warnings are in order. Here are the big ones: Child Abuse, Forced Birth, Infanticide, Dubious Consent, Torture. If these are topics you can read about without doing too much harm to yourself, and if you love a thoroughly developed sci-fi fantasy world, The Fifth Season is a must read.


Content and Ideas 5/5: Jemisin’s world is different from anything else that I, personally, have read. The concepts and technologies of the world are well researched and consistent. The history of the world is compelling and realistic. This is exactly what I would expect from a Hugo award winner.

Organization 4/5: This is a nit pick, but there are places in the story where I felt things could move a bit quicker. About half way through the book I found myself getting very frustrated with the protagonist. I was piecing together the mystery a little quicker than she was, and she wasn’t asking the question that I wanted to ask. There is a little fat to trim, but over all, I thought it was a very well put together narrative.  

Use of Language 5/5: N.K. Jemisin is simply a great writer. She creates language that feels so real that I was frustrated when I googled it and found out that she had made it up. She manages to make the present tense work. She manages to make the second person work. This was ambitious, and risk taking, and I think it really paid off. This will probably be a classic.

Personal Preference 5/5: It has been a long, long time since I read a book that genuinely made me want to learn more about it’s world. I was hoping so much that the appendix would include the full version of those stone lore tablets. I have so many questions. I’m frustrated that I can’t start the next book right now.

Recommendation Strength 4/5: I really think this is a must read for sci-fi/fantasy fans, with the caveat that it does get into some really heavy topics. The Fifth Season is a bummer. You need to be in the right place to get the most out of this one, but if you are, I think you’ll love it.


I co-host the Words About Books podcast with my writing partner Nate.

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