N. K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy (The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky) is a science fantasy series compared to masterpieces like Frank Herbert’s Dune, because of its blend of SF, ma, ic and awareness of events and its consequences on a planetary level. The first two books of this series won the Hugo award, which is given to best SF and fantasy books.
I can see why these books are so highly praised. I have read many fantasy books over the last couple of years and this one stands out to me in many ways. Let’s get back to that later. For now, let’s see what the books are about.
The Broken Earth series is about a vast continent called the Stillness. The Stillness feels like the planet Earth but in a very distant future. A planet Earth which is different from the one of our own reality. So you are raising the question of what happened from the very beginning. Wanting an answer, among other things, will keep you glued to the books and will make you want to flip page after page.
The Stillness is plagued by these epic geological disasters called the Seasons which happen periodically. In the first book, we see one of these seasons is just beginning and this one is said to be the one which will end humankind.
What is specific here is the nature of these disasters or Seasons. Compared to other fantasy novels where the characters are generally fighting and an evil force of their own likeness, here the enemy is Father Earth itself. Thus the Seasons are his creation and they come in different planetary form, like earthquakes, massive volcanic eruptions and other seismic events.
The magic system is unique and we have people with and without magic. People with magic are the orogenes (or derogative, roggas) who are born with the ability to control the earth. Generally orogense are trained roggas, who have learned how to control their powers, by an organization called Fulcrum, which exists to hone the powers of the orogenes in order to keep the wrath of Father Earth in check.
But what is orogeny? According to the dictionary, orogeny is a geological process, a process of mountain formation, especially by the upward displacement of the earth’s crust.
Because of their immense power orogenes are hated and feared in this world, oftentimes killed by their own families at an early age when their power manifests. When possible the orogenes are exploited for their powers, they are subhuman.
The Stillness feels like a medieval world where people live in comms/villages and where each individual is part of a caste. From the beginning, we see clear delimitations between these people, based on their appearance. So, from the start, we encounter characters with having different hair colours and textures and different skin colours. Loved that! So even though these people are so different they can still coexist in the same comms because everyone living in the same comm adopts the comm name, making them family. How great is that! I’m thinking about the amazing job Jemisin did here in terms of representation and inclusiveness.
The world Jemisin built is unique but so are its characters. Our two main characters are female, mother, and daughter. In the opening, we meet Essun, an orogene in hiding, discovering the murder of her son and the disappearance of her daughter. The Season is just starting and she embarks on a journey to find her daughter.
I love how the book is centered on strong female characters. They are not women in need to saving (finally!). The central theme is the relationship between Essun and her daughter who are so different from each other and who want different things which will ultimately make them opponents.
Jemisin set aside all the conventions of typical fantasy and created something truly unique here.
The world is described in such detail that at times you feel lost while reading. There are a lot of information about the past peppered throughout which give you hints without revealing anything. These are not easy to read but they are worth reading. You have to accept the fact that you might need to reread passages or you can just keep on reading as pieces of the puzzle will fall into place eventually.
I might reread these as I feel I have missed some details, and as with every piece of great art, if you want to understand it in full, you need to go back to it multiple times. And going back to this world and its characters is worth it.
In short about the three books:
- The Fifth Season is about discovering the world through the eyes of three female characters at different points in their lives. First, we have Essun, an older woman, mother, and an orogene. As I already mentioned she takes to the road at the beginning in order to find her daughter. Second, we have young Syenite being sent on a mission by the Fulcrum through which she discovers what brutal consequences her work as a Fulcrum orogene have on the world and its people. Third, we meet Damaya, a child rogga taken from home to be trained to serve the Fulcrum and the empire.
- The Obelisk Gate revolves around finding out about these floating obelisks and their purpose. The world building expands and we get introduced to Nassun’s narrative (Essun’s daughter) and through her, we find out what happened to the world. The nature of the conflict between mother and daughter is clear now. If in the first book the season has just started, in this one we are in the thick of it and the battle for survival is a brutal one.
- The Stone Sky is about the final clash between mother and daughter. Will we have a world where orogenes can live safely or will the world be destroyed? Will we unlock the keys to the past? Will Father Earth make peace with humanity?
There is much more I could have mentioned but I think this book is best discovered by reading it. I would highly recommend it to anyone who loves fantasy/SF. I especially recommend it to those tired of encountering the same old tropes, plot and characters. This series is unique and I’m sure it will survive the test of time.
In short, here is why you should read it:
- Female characters who don’t need saving
- Jemisin is great at representation, we see a range of different characters. LGBTQ representation is done effortlessly, as in it’s not just added to the plot as an afterthought
- The focus is not on romance (hurray!)
- The world is unique and crafted masterfully. Not easy to understand but laboring through the difficult parts is worth it.
- Jemisin has shrugged of all the conventions of a typical fantasy book.
- Blend of dystopia, utopia, fantasy, apocaliptic and SF. It definitely didn’t feel like any other fantasy book I read.
- Unique 2nd person present tense narrative through which I felt as being part of the story.
I feel like reading Dune now…Follow me: