The plot of sci-fi and fantasy stories is nearly always the same: Straight white hero finds out he’s Chosen, goes on a journey to save the world. Bilbo and Frodo save their idyllic Shire from Sauron’s sadistic evil. The Pevensie children save the magical, virginal Narnia from the White Witch. Harry Potter saves the real world and the hidden magical one from the fascism and pure blood mania of Lord Voldemort. Lyra saves Victoian-ish, steampunk-ish London from theological tyranny. Presumably Jon Snow (and Arya Stark and Daenerys Targaryen) will save Westeros from White Walkers and dark magic and itself. N.K. Jemisin’s multiple Hugo Award-winning Broken Earth trilogy, which ended with The Stone Sky just a few months ago, is the opposite thing; it asks: What if the world doesn’t deserve to be saved? What if the most righteous thing a hero can do is watch the earth burn?
That’s not the only thing that sets the series apart. All of Jemisin’s work is principally populated by people of color — she notes on her blog that she’s only interested in describing people of color in relation to each other, so “brown becomes the default” in all of her worlds — which is a glorious change to the overwhelmingly white sci-fi/fantasy canon. Queer and trans people are everywhere, not as tokens but as fully realized human beings. And the story takes place in the painfully ironically named land of The Stillness, which bears only a small physical resemblance to our planet and absolutely none whatsoever to medieval Europe.
Oh, the influence of Europe is here; that’s for sure — but it’s not pretty. It’s not knights or dragons or second breakfasts. It’s an oppressed, enslaved, scapegoated, detested minority being used and discarded in perpetuity for centuries to help the men and women in charge prop up their cruel, exploitive power structures.
That minority in the Stillness are orogenes, people who are born with an innate ability to control potentially catastrophic geological events with telekinetic-type powers. Orogenes are both necessary for society’s survival, and completely reviled. Necessary because The Stillness is constantly plagued by earthquakes and tsunamis and volcanic eruptions, ricocheting out of the Evil Earth. Every so often, a geological event wracks the continent with such widespread devastation a Season is declared. Ostensibly orogens are reviled because, without proper training, strong emotions can cause them to “ice” people or land nearby. But the deep, burning hate non-orogenes feel for orogenes is actually much more complicated and insidious than that. It’s also sickeningly familiar.
“He said that he loved her, after all, but that obviously isn’t true. He cannot love an orogene, and that is what she is. He cannot be an orogene’s father, and that is why he constantly demands she be something other than what she is.”
The Broken Earth trilogy tells the story of two orogenes, in particular: Essun, an awesomely powerful middle-aged woman who has experienced near-constant tragedy in her life; and Nassun, her daughter. The two are separated in the opening pages of The Fifth Season, the first book of the series, as Essun’s husband (and Nassun’s father) kills his young son upon discovering that he’s an orogene. That, as the narrator tells us, is one way the world ends. But it ends in another way, too, in those opening pages, as a Rifting occurs that tears the land in half. Earthquakes and ash-filled skies and more brimstone than Mordor ravish the land and decimate the population. The only thing a person can try to do in a Season is survive, and so that’s what Essun and Nassun do, pulled apart to different ends of the earth, learning about themselves and each other, grappling with their identities as women in relation to each other, and their identities as orogenes who have been loathed and loved by the world and each other. Learning, ultimately, how their own oppression fueled the fire that quaked the Season.
I won’t say more about the plot or the characters, for fear of spoiling you. You deserve the honor of hearing Jemisin’s story from the her own pen.
The Broken Earth is not an easy series to read. Technically, the first book is a bit of a challenge because it’s not immediately obvious how the three narratives that make up the novel relate to each other, and because every third chapter is in second person point of view. (This, like everything else in this series, is revealed in the end in a way that marks another revolution.) But mostly this is not an easy series to read because it refuses to look away from — or even blink at — the horrors of those who have been othered.
The secret of the Stillness is that the world has been made and remade and remade again; the only thing that stays the same, through generations and lost civilizations, is the bigotry that drives men to murder their own families, their wives and their daughters who could have saved them all. But of course even those wives and daughters don’t want to see the world destroyed. And neither do you.
“Some worlds are built on a fault line of pain, held up by nightmares. Don’t lament when those worlds fall. Rage that they were built doomed in the first place.”
The Broken Earth trilogy has one of the most stunning, satisfying endings I’ve ever read, in large part because you don’t know how the characters are going to answer that question — or even how you want it answered — until the last page. It made me question everything I know about fantasy. It made me self-interrogate. I will never stop thinking about it. When I finished The Stone Sky, my main feeling was that no one should have ever used the word “epic” to describe a fantasy series before, so that it could be rightly and originally bestowed on Jemisin’s work without precedent connotations. But then, shattering the status quo is kind of her thing.
The Broken Earth trilogy consists of The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky. There are so many things about these books that I’m not qualified to speak about with any authority, but I sure would love to talk with you about all those things in the comments.