The Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin is without a shadow of a doubt a major fantasy trilogy. It first won a Hugo in 2016 for The Fifth Season and then its second Hugo in 2017 for The Obelisk Gate. And though I don’t often like Hugo winners, those are entirely deserved. I was grabbed from the first pages of The Fifth Season, and I then waited eagerly for the last volume to be published, which didn’t disappoint.
The Earth (probably our Earth), after eons of earthquakes and tsunamis, has now only one super continent. Humans live together in communities where each is assigned to a caste according to their aptitudes, and all of them hope they won’t live during a Season, a period following a cataclysm where life is barely possible.
One day, “you”, a second person narrator, feel a huge earthquake coming from the south, going through the whole continent. But “you” are orogene, a rare breed of humans with the strange ability to master geology. “You” protect your village so that your children are safe. Then “you” come back home where you find that your son has been beaten to death by your husband and your daughter has disappeared.
Another thread follows Damaya, a young girl whose parents have realized she is orogene. But orogenes are feared and hated by the human communities. Damaya is given to Schaffa, a Guardian, who will bring her to Yumenes, the imperial city, where she will receive an education in the Fulcrum with other young orogenes so that her powers are used for the empire.
The last thread follows Syenite, a young orogene woman who has been educated by the Fulcrum and who is sent on a mission in a coastal town under the orders of another orogene much more powerful than she is…and that she doesn’t like.
The second person narrative technique isn’t new, but Jemisin uses it with a remarkable effect. And if there’s a “you”, there has to be an “I”…
All the characters are remarkably drawn with nuances. You see why they evolve and how they evolve. Each character is very intricate, and sometimes, very raw in their pain and their grief. The story will often focus on mother/daughter relationships, but it’s a fraught relationship based on hardships and the difficulty to understand, reach for, and work with each other. Though mother/daughter relationships are so particular to each person that it may not work for some readers.
To any alert reader, some things will be obvious very quickly in The Fifth Season, but it isn’t any mystery that holds The Broken Earth trilogy together.
Though the first two volumes are very much a bewilderment at how rich and fascinating a world Jemisin has created, the third is definitely past “just” that. The striking themes of empowerment, social justice, and slavery that existed in the first two volumes are even more dialed up and deliver a strong and powerful message to the current Western world that you can’t ignore, sometimes with hints of the sassiness and anger you could find in Angelou’s poetry:
They’re afraid because we exist (…) There’s nothing we did to provoke their fear, other than exist. There’s nothing we can do to earn their approval, except stop existing – so we can either die like they want, or laugh at their cowardice and go on with our lives.
~The Stone Sky
The Broken Earth trilogy is a striking story, and it is served with a beautiful prose that plays with and creates words. Though it will rely on the oldest of fantasy tropes, it is also very much steeped in geology, and this choice gave Jemisin’s tale a unique angle.
The Fifth Season really deserved its Hugo and so did the second volume, The Obelisk Gate. It is an outstanding work of fantasy, something so well told and with such worldbuilding, I’d be amazed if we still don’t talk about in 20 or 30 years. But like any great fantasy tale, it is so much more than that.
Not all fighters use knives, after all, says a character in The Stone Sky. Jemisin uses words and she fights with this story for a better world. The Broken Earth trilogy is most certainly a winning strike.
N.K. Jemisin, The Broken Earth, Orbit.
- The Fifth season, 2015.
- The Obelisk Gate, 2016.
- The Stone Sky, 2017.
C. has been reading science-fiction and fantasy for about 30 years and tries to have a life in between books, though it’s often less interesting than fictional worlds. You can find more science-fiction and fantasy books reviews by C. on http://www.themiddleshelf.org or on Twitter : @themiddleshelf1
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