The book is The Fifth Season by N K Jemisin, the first in The Broken Earth series. It’s about a sub-set of humanity who have the ability to draw energy from the world around them and use it in various ways, and how they are oppressed by the rest of the populace in a world that is subject to periodic environmental cataclysms. I decided to read it with my ears, as Jane would say, as I thought listening to a second person narrative might be particularly immersive. Interestingly, this was not so. The book has three distinct plot strands, only one of which turned out to be in the second person, and it was actually the one I related to least.
That one follows a woman named Essun, who arrives home one day to discover her husband has beaten their three-year-old son to death and kidnapped their seven-year-old daughter, because he discovers the children have inherited their mother’s magical power.
The second person narrative didn’t help me to put myself in Essun’s place, because her story very much revolved around her experience as a mother, which is not something I can relate to. I found it interesting that the gender and status of the character was so powerfully emphasised, as I would normally expect a character in a second person narrative to be quite generic, in order for the reader to imagine themselves in the story.
This wasn’t the only problem I had with the book, though, at least to begin with.
The second narrative follows a teenager named Demaya, who is abused and neglected by her family for possessing the magic power. She is rescued by a man who trains children with the power, only to be horribly tortured by him in the guise of teaching her control.
The third narrative follows Syanite, a woman who is established as a trained wielder of the power, but who is forced to conceive children against her will in order to produce more magical resource for the state. At the point where she and her companion discover the fate of children who are unable to control their power, I decided to give up listening to the book, because it was just too unpleasant. I was hopeful that the characters would be able to effect positive change in their world by the end of the series, but I really wasn’t sure I wanted to suffer through all the doom and despair that was bound to occur before that conclusion.
The book had obviously managed to get me invested by this point, however, because when I went to delete if from my Audible library and choose a new book to listen to, I instead hit the button to continue listening to this one. I just couldn’t leave the characters in the horrific situations they were all in and decided I needed to see it through.
The storyline featuring the teenage character turned into an even more unpleasant, and overly familiar tale of abuse and bullying in a boarding school setting, which was a bit wearying. However, the other two storylines developed in quite interesting ways. I related most to Syanite, and Essun picked up some fascinating travelling companions along her way, which made me want to know what would happen to them next. The book became more interesting and less unpleasant as it went along. I assume the opening sections were deliberately shocking in order to draw the reader in, though they had the opposite effect on me, and I very nearly didn’t make it to the good bits!
It initially seemed as though there was no connection between the three storylines at all, but in fact they turned out to be very intimately and cleverly connected. When this became clear, I felt as if I should have seen it coming, but I never would have guessed the connection. It brought a lot more resonance and significance to all three plot threads, though, and made me even more interested to see how it would end.
The horror of the earliest sections reared its ugly head again right at the end, and called into question the motivation for some of the main characters’ earlier actions, but I was in pretty deep by that point. The very last line of the book also promises intrigue and excitement for the next one, so I think I’m going to have to carry on to find out what happens.
I’ll probably listen to something a bit jollier first, though!