Spoiler-Free N.K. Jemisin Reading Guide.
N.K. Jemisin is one of the most celebrated writers in science fiction and fantasy today, and she has quite quickly built up a decent-sized back catalogue of books and stories. This can make finding a good way to enter into her work quite difficult. But have no fear – I have read all of Jemisin’s novels and I’m here to help you out!
The nice thing about Jemisin’s books is that all of her various series are unconnected from one another, so you can pretty much start anywhere. All you have to ask yourself is what you want to get out of the reading experience.
If you want to get a good taste of Jemisin’s writing without a commitment:
I would start with her short story collection, How Long ‘Til Black Future Month. I am not a big short story reader (something I am trying to change about myself!), so this wasn’t my favorite of Jemisin’s writings. However, it will give you a sampling of all of the various subgenres and storytelling styles that Jemisin explores. Plus, Jemisin expanded several of the short stories into full length novels so you can get a good taste of where you might want to move next!
If you just want to get straight to what all of the hype is about:
Jemisin’s most celebrated novel is The Fifth Season, the first book in the Broken Earth Trilogy. A dark, dystopian climate fantasy, this trilogy was the first to win three consecutive Hugo Awards for Best Novel. The Fifth Season is truly a tour-de-force of a fantasy novel. The way that Jemisin plays with perspective is awe-inspiring, and the world-building is top notch. Jemisin writes with such surety and confidence; however, the book leans hard into its style and theme, so it won’t be for everyone.
The Fifth Season is followed by The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky. These are both worthy sequels to The Fifth Season, even if they don’t quite reach its heights.
I also want to reiterate that these are dark books, so check trigger warnings.
If you prefer to read an author’s work in publication order:
Go grab a copy of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the first book in the Inheritance Trilogy. This book follows the main character, Yeine, who travels to a floating city in the sky when she finds out she might be the heir to the throne. What results is a political power struggle in a story full of enslaved gods and intrigue. As one of Jemisin’s earliest books, this book suffers from some plotting and character issues. I know a lot of readers who didn’t like this book (although I did!). The two sequels, which change POV character and general setting, are much stronger, particularly the second book, The Broken Kingdoms.
If you are looking for urban or contemporary fantasy, or are seeking the most direct political commentary:
Read The City We Became, the first book in the Great Cities duology. In this series, some people are the walking embodiment and avatars of the “soul” of cities. New York City has finally matured enough to get its own avatar, but in a twist it gets one for each borough. We follow the new NYC avatars as they battle evil and learn more about themselves and the city itself. This is Jemisin’s most explicitly political work, as she tackles themes of xenophobia, racism, and sexism (among others). Readers outside of the U.S. and/or those without much knowledge of NYC may not feel connected to the story, as it has a strong and unabashed sense of place.
The sequel, The World We Make, concludes the story but in a rather rushed and haphazard manner. As Jemisin explains in an author’s note, this was supposed to be a trilogy, but she ended it early because it felt too personal. Readers who really like the worldbuilding and the “cities as avatars” angle might be a little disappointed that Jemisin doesn’t have the space to explore this further.
If you were the kid obsessed with Ancient Egypt:
Check out the Dreamblood Duology starting with The Killing Moon and followed by The Shadowed Sun. This is a fictional fantasy world inspired by the culture and beliefs of Ancient Egypt (a setting which has been surprisingly ignored in epic fantasy). Even with Jemisin dominating the genre, this duology still flies under the radar. It has deadly gods, assassins, and a unique magic system.