The Broken Earth #1: The Fifth Season
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
This is the way the world ends...again, and again. Not with a whimper, but a very loud crunch. The title refers to a cataclysmic event that marks the end of one historical era, and the long, slow climb back up to civilization.
Yet another book that I wanted to like more than I did. It's up for a Hugo [Update: it won!], so I needed to read it before casting my vote. It did not win for its other nominations, Nebula or Locus. It is the first I've read from Jemisin, although I have another of her novels. The Fifth Season begins a new trilogy, collectively known as the Broken Earth, and I have given that name to this page although I'm not sure I'll continue with the series. Maybe if the follow-up is nominated next year, maybe only if it wins. While it has generally been classified as fantasy, there are certain elements that put it in the realm of science fiction. First, it's set several millennia into our own Earth's future. At least I think it is, I could be wrong. Maybe it's an alternate Earth, but definitely one transformed from our reality. I may have missed some clues, or they were vague and confusing, but the causes for the changes are not clear, although the last sentence is probably key. [EDIT: I've read other comments that say it is another planet altogether, but I'm not convinced of that. Perhaps a re-read is in order.]
The story tracks three women through different timelines, and at first I was confused as to their chronological order. Two segments are written in third-person, the other in second-person present tense, which was a bit jarring. That's the one that eventually proved to be furthest down the timeline, but what we know by then, plus a previous character revelation, negated tension in scenes of the middle timeline. I did suspect that revelation ahead of time, so I wasn't surprised by it, nor by the next. Sorry, but I won't reveal what they are. Based on other reviews and ratings I've seen, the majority of readers give it high marks. I was only able to give it three out of five stars on Goodreads. Good enough to finish (mainly because I need to vote on it), but weak in several particulars, not the least of which is unsympathetic characters.
Perhaps what I like least in fantasy is that it doesn't have to follow reason or logic, so if this is fantasy my objections are moot. If it is to be considered science fiction, the main problem is the logical nature of the premise has yet to be established. Were aliens involved in the transformation of Earth? Are they still around? There seem to be a few hints concerning that, and if so, I know which entities I suspect. Another question that rises from that is whether or not there has been interbreeding with humanity. I'm normally not so vague in describing a book's plot, but I'm afraid if I tried I'd only make it more confusing. I'll just say that the definition of the word orogeny will tell you a lot, and also that the ones I suspect as alien are known as stone-eaters. The previously mentioned last sentence brought up something that I probably should have noticed before. Again, I won't reveal what it is, but a hint is that it concerns something not mentioned earlier in descriptions of the night sky.
In summation, while I can't give this book a hearty recommendation, I'm not trying to dissuade anyone from reading it either. For those who've already read and enjoyed it, I also wouldn't try to talk you out of using this link to pre-order the second book, The Obelisk Gate, due out Aug. 16. It is possible the remaining volumes of the series will answer all my questions satisfactorily. I just wish Jemisin had made me care more about discovering them.
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