N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy is the best fantasy of the decade
Warning: This article contains spoilers about the Broken Earth trilogy.
If the Earth were conscious, then surely it would despise us by now. As if claiming ownership over the planet wasn’t bad enough already, humans have really ratcheted up our assault on nature in recent decades. Even as the icebergs melt and storms rage, we’ve continued drilling for oil, filling the oceans with garbage, and burning down the rainforest.
Genre fiction can’t help but respond to this nightmarish absurdity; occasionally, even a blockbuster supervillain tries to destroy or conquer humanity explicitly in order to save the planet from our appetites. But one reason that N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy is the best fantasy of the decade is that it casts Earth itself as the antagonist to humankind. This is a post-apocalyptic saga set in a world where a new apocalypse occurs every few generations as a result of an open war between this planet and the people who live on it — close enough to reality to resonate, but far enough away to get readers lost in a fully realized fictional world.
That’s certainly one way to open a discussion of these three books: The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky. It’s sometimes hard to know where to begin with Jemisin’s work; pity the copywriters tasked with making cover lines to convey the vivacity of her characters, the depth of her world-building, and the urgency of her storytelling. One could note that these books were released one after the other in 2016, 2017, and 2018, and won the Hugo Award for Best Novel each year. No one had ever done that before, but maybe that feat doesn’t resonate as much outside the fantasy/science-fiction community. The best introduction is probably the same way all great fantasy novels begin: with a big ol’ map.
Broken Earth’s map is of an Earth with a single continent called the Stillness. It’s a hard land, buffeted by consistent shakes and recurring catastrophes. Another big difference between this land and ours is its population of “orogenes,” humans born with the ability to generate shakes and control the movements of the earth. Depending on your perspective, the orogenes are either the only force saving humankind from earthquake-induced extinction or the very reason for the Earth’s angry instability — and there are a lot of different perspectives on display in Broken Earth. The Fifth Season focuses entirely on one woman, though it refers to her by three different names (Essun, Syenite, and Damaya) as it tells the stories of three distinct periods in her life. The other novels are also each split into three characters, though now Essun must share the stage with her daughter, Nassun, their shared mentor/tormentor Schaffa, and her protector Hoa. Each book is therefore a trilogy unto itself, stories laid within stories like the concentric rings used to age trees or distinguish the power levels of different orogenes.
It all takes some getting used to, but once this world reveals itself to you, there’s no going back. There is beauty in the Stillness: The sky is full of floating obelisks, remnants of some long-lost civilization. These relics flit constantly between reality and dream, each one made of a beautiful gemstone like aquamarine, sapphire, and (most importantly) onyx. Uncovering their purpose is a major part of Essun’s journey. Then there are the stone eaters, living statues who move through the earth like water and have spent millennia working toward the fulfillment of their master plan. There have been rumors of a possible TV adaptation of Broken Earth, but Jemisin’s descriptions of stone eater speech — “the stone eater’s mouth doesn’t open when she speaks. Her eyes don’t move. She might as well be the statue she appears to be. Then sense reasserts itself” — are great reminders that even in our age of computer-generated genre blockbusters, the imagination can still dream up things that defy traditional visual representation.
We meet this world in the process of ending. The Fifth Season opens with one person kicking off a new Ragnarok by creating a great red rift in the center of the continent, spewing ash into the air and sending everything into survival mode. The Stillness’ inhabitants are just as accustomed to such apocalyptic “seasons” as we readers are to dark future stories. The message is the same, to them and to us: You think you know how the apocalypse will go, but you’ve never seen the world end like this.
The Fifth Season throws a lot at you to begin with (Jemisin never holds your hand, but trusts the reader to find their way around her deeply detailed world), but even if you get a little lost in the jargon, things clarify when Syenite and her travel companion Alabaster reach something called a “node station.” This was in the prime of the protagonist’s life, years before the Rifting; hope you like stories that are told out of chronological order! Such installations are placed at regular intervals throughout the Stillness, to help contain the shakes that plague the land. At the center of each station is a chair made of wires and straps, and here is what Syenite and Alabaster find in it: “The body in the node maintainer’s chair is small, and naked. Thin, its limbs atrophied. Hairless. There are things — tubes and pipes and things, she has no words for them — going into the stick-arms, down the goggle-throat, across the narrow crotch. There’s a flexible bag on the corpse’s belly, attached to its belly somehow, and it’s full of — ugh.” Hatred of orogenes goes even beyond that. Remember those concentric circles? As the Stillness is hit with continental apocalypse, Essun is also hit with a personal world-ending event at the start of The Fifth Season when her husband, Jija, beats their young son Uche to death upon discovering that he’s an orogene.
Jemisin once told EW that she was a fan of X-Men comics in college, and there is some shared DNA: The Fulcrum, where young orogenes like Damaya are trained to control their power, is like a nightmare vision of Xavier’s school. Orogenes aren’t being trained so that they can become great heroes, but so they learn their subservient place in society. If they don’t obey, there’s always a wire chair to send them to. This unflinching look at institutional oppression resonated in a decade where more and more people became aware of similar dynamics in real life — and more importantly, sought to change them.
Toward the beginning of their journey, Alabaster tells Syenite, “there should be a better way” — a way for human society to exist without killing children or strapping them into wire chairs or teaching people to hate each other. Syenite’s reply is immediate and unbending: “There isn’t.” But at the end of The Stone Sky, after Essun has been tested, destroyed, and renewed, she declares, “I want the world to be better.”
What do we really mean, after all, when we talk about destroying the world? Whether environmental or political or martial, a destructive crisis always seems overwhelming to the people who go through it. But if the planet survives, and the human race survives, then what has ended? Perhaps just an old way of doing things. No one ever said change would be easy.