Basic good fantasy fiction in the making.
As with any other established genre, the epic fantasy novel has a few sure beats: colliding stories of multiple point-of-view characters, a strange world that parallels our own but has crucial differences (and a foreign vocabulary to emphasize those differences) and a persistent clash between the individual agency of the hero (or heroes) and the structural determinism of their society or realm. Writers tinker with these bedrock tropes and many of the genre’s undisputed classics (A Song of Ice and Fire, for example) subvert several of them, but these basic tenets of fantasy storytelling are always present.
The Broken Earth Trilogy by N. K. Jemisin is no different. The first book, The Fifth Season, offers up three different characters each struggling to survive in a world called The Stillness. The Stillness looks much like Earth. There are complex human societies that imitate our own, with industry, divisions of labor, governance and even prejudices that feel familiar to anyone who can read a book in English. The distinctiveness of The Stillness lies in its geology; like Earth, this world is invisibly dictated by plate tectonics, except that The Stillness is far more geologically kinetic, replete with earthquakes and volcanoes. The people of The Stillness are equipped to handle this key difference between their world and ours, however, because some of their inhabitants are orogenes, magical beings who have inherited the ability to manipulate stone.
The point-of-view characters are all orogenes. In a not-very-subtle plot “twist,” the three characters—Damaya, Syenite and Essun—are eventually revealed to all be the same person at three different points in her life. The book begins with the oldest, Essun, and her experience of the trilogy’s inciting event (another essential fantasy trope). Specifically, the world ends; those are the very first words of the Prologue. Essun is a school teacher in an insignificant provincial town who, because of her orogenic skill, feels the earthquake that destroyed The Stillness’ primary metropolitan centers (jump-starting the end of the world) and diverts it around her town, sparing it from destruction. When these sorts of geological catastrophes kick off, the people call them “Seasons” and a particularly bad one is referred to as a “Fifth Season.” Essun now has to navigate a Fifth Season so cataclysmic that it will be called “The” Fifth Season. The other two characters, Damaya and Syentie, are there to provide the origin stories for both The Stillness—its geology, society, government and cultural practices—and for Essun. The primary side characters and story lore are all revealed in the chapters from these two perspectives.
In many ways, then, the Broken Earth trilogy looks very much like its genre cohort. This is rinse-and-repeat-style fantasy storytelling—that is not a criticism—and is imminently recognizable. Even the magic system more closely resembling scientific laws than it does elves with glowing fingertips is, by this point, a typical part of fantasy worldbuilding popularized by Brandon Sanderson, among others. But there is one major element at work in Jemisin’s trilogy that has made it stand out (each subsequent book in the story has won the past three Hugo Awards, after all).
It is immediately obvious, but no less shocking and effective for being so. Namely, The Fifth Season (and the whole trilogy) employs the second-person point of view for the parts of the story taking place in the present. Put simply, fiction is not written in the second person; it is not even considered a possible point of view. Novels are written in the first person, the third limited, the third omniscient or a combination or hybrid of those. Yet, Jemisin dares to try the second person and it provides a vibrancy to the narration that makes the book a pure joy to read. Perhaps more importantly, the second person point of view significantly complicates the narration. It provides a metatextual layer to the story: who is the narrator, how is s/he addressing the Essun character, is the narrator actually addressing Essun and just, generally, what the fuck?
The Fifth Season establishes the Broken Earth Trilogy by developing the primary characters, setting up the parameters of a make-believe world and introducing several mysteries that will ensure readers will open the second book to have resolved. Again, basic good fantasy fiction in the making. When the shock of the second person point of view stunt is added in, the result is a book (and a series) with the kind of verve needed to win three consecutive prestigious prizes.