I finally got around to finishing N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy. I read the first book, The Fifth Season, sometime in 2016 and was mostly waiting for the next two to be published before diving back in. They are phenomenal books, if extremely bleak. However, (and take note grimdark fans) Jemisin manages to create this bleakness without raping her female characters every other page. Bonkers, I know. Survival is paramount in the Stillness. If you cannot contribute to the survival of your people, community, or family then you are just out of luck and it is entirely possible you will be eaten for protein. The books are a strong condemnation on racism, overconsumption, and hatred. And yet, despite the bleakness of the world there is an acknowledgement that humanity, love, are worth the struggle of survival, even broken as we are.
The Fifth Season starts with the end of the world. A character, for reasons of his own, sets off an epic cataclysmic event in a world where cataclysmic events are a routine thing. Through the course of that book, we are given on possible reason he did what he did. The Obelisk Gate gives us another reason he might have done this, it is the first step in a way to save humanity from the wrath of Father Earth. Essun, the main character we’ve followed from the beginning, must decide if she’s going to take up his mantle and continue the path to saving humanity despite the losses that humanity has inflicted upon her. We’re also introduced to Essun’s daughter Nassun and follow her as she copes with her deadly father and her growing powers.
The Stone Sky brings the characters together for one final confrontation, as well as giving us the answers about why the world has developed the way it has. Who the Stone Eaters are, who the Guardians are, and where the Orogenes came from and why Father Earth is so very angry at humanity. It is a satisfying conclusion to the story.
The Broken Earth is a complex story, with many themes woven together to form one stronger theme of what it means to be human. There is, of course, the very obvious theme of racism. It is no coincidence that the derogatory term for orogene is rogga, which sounds so very similar to the n-word in our society. However, even then Jemisin refuses to allow her reader to draw a direct comparison to race. Orogenes are not a race of people, they are found in every single race in The Stillness, they just have an ability that makes them separate. It’s a clever way to explore racism while deconstructing our current idea of what race means.
Another them in the book explores the bonds between parents and children; and how those bonds shape us. There is Essun and her three children, their loss changes who she is. There is Essun and her surrogate father Schaffa, and then later Schaffa and Nassun versus Nassun and Jija. But over all that there is Father Earth and the Moon (his favorite child), but also Father Earth and humanity the ones who betrayed him and the ones he attempts to destroy.
A more subtle theme, one that isn’t really made clear until the end of The Stone Sky, is how consumption is not a sustainable way to exist as a people. The people who lived before The Sundering, before fifth seasons were a thing, were the ultimate consumers. They were willing to drain everything in order to keep consuming.
But mostly, through it all, there is hope that things will get better. Ykka and her community contrasts heavily with the rest of the world, but this community survives. The last chapter of The Stone Sky is full of hope, the hope of work and the hope of change. It’s a good note to end the story on.
I hesitate the label something, especially something published so recently, as a book that will stand the test of time (especially because I’m currently reading a series that was so labeled and doesn’t age as well as people thought it would), but I do think this story, this series, will become one of those classic novels. Both The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate won the Hugo for best novel the year they were published. The Stone Sky is deserving of the 2017 Hugo, and I will be very disappointed if it doesn’t win. As a complete work, The Broken Earth is a marvel.