In the prologue of The Fifth Season, this was too much. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Broken Earth.
Trigger Warning: For death of a child
Oh, what a day. WHAT A DAY, friends.
First things first: Inevitably, as is the case when I start a new book or series on my sites, there is an influx of newbies! I review books slightly differently than folks are used to, so I encourage new folks to read this to understand how things work around here. This time, however, I would recommend returning readers to give this a look, too, as there is a big change this time around.
Please do not spoil me or anyone else. While I have extensively written about what constitutes a spoiler in my Rules and FAQ pages, there is a very, very simple way of abiding by this: if what you are about to say in any way refers to something I have not reached yet, don’t say it in plaintext. Just don’t. You don’t need to say it to me, I will survive to live another day, don’t.
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If you missed the announcement (as is probably the case if you weren’t checking in during my Discworld read), health issues have necessitated that I stop doing Mark Reads videos in order to not harm my voice. From here on out, we’re going back to the original style of Mark Reads reviews, which are all text. Please don’t try to commission video readings of the books I’m covering anymore; I will promptly refund you. (If you’re reading this and have an outstanding commission, please check your email, as I contacted you already! About 75% of folks have already responded, so there are a few people still left.)
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In 2015, when I was at Arisia in Boston, N.K. Jemisin was the guest of honor. I was in the room for a reading of hers and heard what I think was the prologue of this book? All of this was deeply unfamiliar to me except for I remember it being about rocks and that it was in second person? Either way: I do like being upfront about knowing literally ANYTHING about a project, since being unspoiled is the whole point of this. So, I still don’t know shit about this trilogy, and I’m scared.
Because lord, did The Inheritance Trilogy ruin me. RUIN. ME. (You can find the complete archive of those reviews here!)
So, it’s really fun and exciting to be returning to the work of N.K. Jemisin, someone who I look up to and respect. But I also approach this (and really, everything I write about on Mark Reads especially) from a different perspective. By the time I finished The Inheritance Trilogy, I was still hard at work on a novel of my own, one at the time was science fiction and part of a greater plan for a trilogy. (I LOVE TRILOGIES.) It didn’t turn out that way, but what I’d planned for a LOT of things didn’t turn out as I expected. I say this because I now have something I never thought I’d write coming out this fall: a fantasy book. I promise, this is not about promoting myself, but sharing that I understand something because I’ve now been on the other side of the curtain.
Holy fucking shit, fantasy books are HARD TO WRITE.
And it’s not like the other books I’ve written were necessarily easy, but there is just so much more you have to do and take into consideration than I thought I was ready for. As I read the opening sentences of the prologue, as Jemisin slipped us all into the world of the Stillness, I could appreciate what a delicate, complicated, and masterful thing had just been accomplished. The first page alone is phenomenal, and what a way to open a book: with an ending. A cataclysmic one, too, all so we could get on to better things? Entire books, trilogies, movements, longform series have been devoted to the notion of the end of the world. Jemisin starts with it.
It’s a weird fucking thing to be reading on May 31, 2020, too.
From there, there’s a monumental task set forth, one I found increasingly difficult to manage myself. Look, in a fantasy narrative, the reader needs to know about the world. They need to know what’s different from our world, or what’s the same. Is it a secondary world? Contemporary? A portal to a new realm? How does any of it work? And by “it,” I mean… well, literally every aspect of a society or a community or a world. Except you can’t know everything, right? A writer has to choose what has meaning, what matters to the story, what remains in the background, what sits in the forefront. What’s the context that informs the decisions of major characters?
All that is still the tip of the iceberg. What’s the framing device, then, by which an author can reveal this information? A lot of fantasy books do this thing where this exposition—which is necessary, to some extent—is dumped upon the reader. I’ve read books in the past year where these info dumps are the first fifty pages, and it’s a challenge to read through them! I understand that there has to be some form of onboarding when it comes to many of the speculative fiction genres, but I also want to be intrigued. Entertained. I need to care.
Look how quickly Jemisin introduces a character, gives us an emotional conflict IN THE SECOND PARAGRAPH, and makes it very clear what sort of tone we’re getting here. I don’t mean that solely in terms of emotional heaviness; on the second page, it’s also obvious that the narration is going to be very different from one might expect from a fantasy novel. I’m a huge fan of voice-y novels, and look at the voice of this narrator! I don’t know if they’re a character we’ll meet at some point. They could be an interested third party. They could be.. no one. Just the narrator. But oh, I love it. The use of second-person intrigues me, too. I can’t tell what Jemisin is doing with it to accent the story, but something feels more than intentional about it. Someone is telling this story to someone, giving them bits and pieces that are important, that provide context, that ground this story in a long history. So… who is The Fifth Season speaking to? Why does that matter?
The brilliance of this risk—because second-person is exceedingly rare—is that it allows Jemisin to provide exposition in a stylistic, poetic way for the reader and whomever is intended as the recipient of the narrator’s story. (Which still could be us, now that I think about it. Oh, I’m in for a ride, aren’t I?) And while this narration is lyrical and gorgeous, I also love that Jemisin plays with the notion of the literal and the metaphorical. There is a boldness in declaring a detail like a balcony to be a sign of defiance, for example. Literally, they make no sense in a world like the Stillness, and yet that one bit says so much. How do people defy the geological nature of their world? Is it safe to assume that there is an element of luxury in this, that it winks at the reader and tells us that this is what the privileged do? They build in defiance of what is sensible because they can. It speaks in a metaphorical sense about what it means to live in Yumenes, one of the equatorial cities that is stable only relative to the rest of the land.
Yet later, Jemisin toys with metaphor very directly:
Up close, however, any hypothetical observer would notice that her skin is white porcelain; that is not a metaphor. As a sculpture, she would be beautiful, if too relentlessly realistic for local tastes. Most Yumenescenes prefer polite abstraction over vulgar actuality.
Because there’s the direct rejection of a metaphor in that passage, and yet, the image means something else. What does realism mean to the people of Yemenes? Why do they prefer abstraction over actuality?
What don’t the Yemenes want to see?
So, there’s a beautiful use of language throughout this, one that’s having a direct conversation and another between the lines. With this, Jemisin paints a picture of a world about to end: of how Yemenes constructed high in defiance of a constantly-moving world, and yet, everything comes to an end. There’s an end in Uche’s life, and there’s an end in the emperor. There’s an end in Yemenes. And it’s all because of an unknown man who has a connection to this world that I don’t quite understand. From context, I’m thinking that “sessapinae” is something in the man’s body, and it’s how he sense other life, maybe? Regardless: we know his companion has existed since basically the beginning of time, and she is here to witness what is about to pass.
She is also a stone eater.
(Is that what the creature is at the end of the prologue?)
This is the end of the world. Something I assume the stone eaters, who live belowground, have seen over and over again. Why did this one seek out the man who ended the world? And what does this mean?
His fingers spread and twitch as he feels several reverberating points on the map of his awareness: his fellow slaves. He cannot free them, not in the practical sense. He’s tried before and failed. He can, however, make their suffering serve a cause greater than one city’s hubris, and one empire’s fear.
This is a weird fucking thing to be reading on May 31, 2020.
One thing that stuck out to me in this prologue was how debris and hubris seem so close to one another in this world. The people of Yemenes constructed a city that stretched to the sky—that had balconies!—even though there is no certain other than the world eventually tearing itself apart. So, in the world that comes next, will the rubble of Yemenes be like the obelisks that float in the sky? Will it be stripped of meaning in the eons that come and pass? Will people wonder what was once there, and will they event stories to explain it? This book is, indeed, another story being told about this place. How many more will be added?
After all this, though, Jemisin narrows the focus, and we fully meet Essun, Uche’s mother. I might be misreading this, but there seems to be some sort of in-world similarity to colorism happening here, given how Essun’s skin is described:
Her skin is unpleasantly ocher-brown by some standards and unpleasantly olive-pale by others.
The use of the word “unpleasantly” is fascinating. Whose standards? Why do some look down on her for dark skin? Why do others see her as too pale? Even more interesting:
Mongrel midlatters, Yumenescenes call (called) people like her—enough Sanzed in them to show, not enough to tell.
That’s an intentional term, one meant to invoke a very real-world slur. So what’s “Sanzed”? Another people? How does that affect her appearance?
She liked nursing Uche here. She thinks he was conceived here.
His father has beaten him to death here.
Hi, what the fuck. Hello???? Why are you doing this to me???
But there’s one more enormous twist here, and it’s the object. The object that appears in the remains outside of Tirimo, Essun’s home. The object that… births? Someone?? Who also isn’t a child??? Who eats the crystals from inside the object? Except now I’m re-thinking the use of “appears.” Was that thing always in Tirimo, or did it arrive after the quakes? WHY IS HE TRYING TO MIMIC BEING HUMAN???
As if all this weren’t enough, I can’t get over the final line of the prologue:
This is the way the world ends.
For the last time.
If the end of the world is this seismic upheaval, one caused by the unnamed man earlier in the prologue, then… what’s coming? What upsets that cycle? Essun? The strange character who is imitating a human boy? Something else?
This feels so appropriate, y’all. Beginnings and endings. The story opens with the end of the world, and here, at the end of this introduction, we get a glimpse of where it will all go.
It’s fucking brilliant, and I, for one, cannot wait to find out what all of this.
Since there are no longer videos, I wanted to bring back something I did irregularly back when I did Mark Reads without that aspect. The videos achieved a neat thing: y’all got to see instantaneous reactions to things. But you also got all my asides, many of which never made it into reviews. I was always conscious of this notion of keeping them separate: they were each their own form of criticism, in a sense, so I didn’t want my reviews to just be a repeat of the video.
This is the first review I’ve written since… shit. 2012? 2013? Somewhere around then was when Mark Reads videos were introduced. What I used to do was read with my Notes app open, and I’d put all my preliminary thoughts and reactions into it. Some of this stuff made it into the final review, as you’ll see below! Some of it didn’t. Either way, you can enjoy this stream-of-conscious nightmare, as I plan to include these at the end of every review.
Thanks for being here with me, friends.
- hey that dedication HELL YEAH
- fuck yeah MAPS i wanna write a book with a map someday
- hi, reading this on may 31, 2020 is a fucking LOT
- conflict between fantasy and reality re: uche?
- love how many of these descriptions are both poetic AND literal
- oh my god balconies as bravery and hubris
- “because why not” LMMMAAAOOOOO
- LITERALLY PRESERVED??? WHAT???
- sessapinae? dictionary is failing me
- feeling?? what? who is his companion???
- “that is not a metaphor” I LOVE HOW THIS TEXT PLAYS WITH THIS NOTION
- stone eaters???
- what the fuck who is this guy!!!
- the second person is SO FUCKING GOOD.
- debris as history?
- there’s an interesting whimsy to the narration
- the way different cities are built based on where they are in the Stillness!!!!!
- the past tense asides HELP, THEY RUIN ME
- what the FUCK
- I DON’T LIKE THE OBJECT
- N O P E
- “something pushes the object from within” absolutely fucking not
- “not actually a child” hey why are you like this
- for the last time??? hey WHAT
Mark Links Stuff
– You can now pre-order my second YA novel, Each of Us a Desert, which will be released on September 15, 2020 from Tor Teen!
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