Probably the most apparently strange aspects of The Fifth Season is in its perspective. Jemisin uses not only three different characters within the novel, but more than one perspective. I found this to be one of the most intriguing aspects to both the narrative and storytelling format itself. Jemisin’s usage of second person perspective was especially strange but in ways incredibly effective.
Perspective always plays a large role in how a novel is delivered. While something as minor as “he walked to the door” vs “I walked to the door” can be seen as inconsequential or a minute detail, this can often change how a story is delivered. The author is presented with an important decision on how the reader not only sees the story, but also the narration itself. Character perspective in literature can completely change a situation, or even alter how an entire world is perceived.
I tried to find if Jemisin directly explained her reasonings behind a mixed perspective. Unfortunately, I could not find a blog post of hers directly relating to this subject. However, I did find an interview where she spoke about The Fifth Season in general. Here, she does dip into perspective. Jemisin states that she found a second person perspectives just by experimenting with different voices for the narrative. In the interview, she states that she did like the result.
When I look back over The Fifth Season, I can feel many of the effects of this narrative decision. The second person usage in the novel is experimental in many ways but has incredible benefits. In a general sense, this perspective worked in the context of the book because it draws the reader in, experiencing the events of the world in a personal way. It’s a matter of how information is delivered. When Essun laments over the loss of her child “Two days pass before anyone comes for you. You’ve spent them in the house with your dead son,” (The Fifth Season, 16), the language is aimed as if the reader experiences this (this dark part of the novel also occurs in the first chapter, really dropping the reader into this style). Exposition is delivered to the reader as if it is knowledge they already know, “‘The uni’ she referred to, you are certain, is the Seventh University in Dibars,” (The Fifth Season, 232). Even chapter names refer to the reader, “you’re among friends” (264), “you’re all you need” (444). While this seems like a minor aspect of the series at first, over time it does have the effect of placing the reader in the narrative.
The method by which the narrator tells the reader what they are experiencing almost like a choose-your-own-adventure or tabletop RPG. It’s something that is rarely seen in written literature. From a personal standpoint, I eventually found myself relating more to the characters within the novel in part due to this technique (a subject which I covered in another blog post here).
Additionally, the ideas Jemisin looked to deliver are delivered straight to the reader with “you”, creating an almost introspective experience. In a fantasy world like the Stillness, this usage of “you” brings the reader out of the bubble for a moment. Instead of containing social or environmental ideas to the world on the pages, this provides a sort of path into the real environment. This is especially powerful when the narratives break for the interludes, where the narrator still speaks within the environment of the world, but there are no distractions of the narrative.
The reason the second person narrative of Essun’s chapters has so much punch is in part because the entire novel isn’t delivered in it. The moments addressing the reader are removed from many of the “past” chapters within The Fifth Season. Damaya and Syenite’s stories are told to the reader from a more traditional, third-person point of view. With the reveal that these characters are both past versions of Essun, there is an incredibly unique moment within the novel, where the reader realizes that are past events from where “you” are in the narrative. It paints these chapters as memories of the reader and reveals the large characterization changes Essun experiences over her life, as well as creating a mental timeline in the mind of the reader.
The second person aspect of Jemisin’s novel is one of the most talked about aspects of it in the conversations surrounding the series. Just simple internet searches show that many reviews and discussion around the Broken Earth trilogy come from this part of the literature. However, Jemisin’s usage is really much more than a quirk or a gimmick. It has a strange but incredibly effective effect that many narratives don’t seem to often attain. This narrative effect is rare in written literature and is something I have only experienced in types of storytelling such as choose your own adventure novels or tabletop games. The way this usage of character perspective is weaved into a long form and complex narrative of a novel is one of the really unique aspects of Jemisin’s series.
I am curious to know if anyone else felt similar about the second person style, and found themselves more “in the world” of the Broken Earth series. Even if not, I think it is a really unique and fresh way to deliver Essun’s story.