Book(s) of the Week: The Broken Earth Trilogy by N. K. Jesimin
A few months back, I was scrolling my facebook newsfeed when I came across a video someone posted of the 2018 Hugo Award acceptance speech. It was commended by a facebook friend as a powerful speech about race and representation in fiction, especially science fiction. I did not know the author, N. K. Jesimin; however, I knew the award. The Hugo is one of the two most prestigious awards given for Sci-Fi and fantasy writing, the other being the Nebula award. I am not a hard science fiction fan, but I do enjoy reading occasionally.
When I began to look into the author giving the speech, I discovered that N. K. Jesimin has accomplished something unprecedented in the history of the Hugo awards. She has won the award three years in a row, each award for one volume of the Broken Earth Trilogy. With this in mind, I absolutely had to read it.
Book 37: The Fifth Season by N. K. Jesimin
The first volume of the Broken Earth trilogy introduces us to three female protagonists: Essun, Damaya, and Syenite. We begin with Essun as “the world ends”, or at least the world that she has known. This world is called “The Stillness” and it is probably a future world. In this world, humans live a precarious existence at war with Father Earth, who is angry that humans have exploited the earth’s energy and natural resources. He retaliates by shifting energy around, causing earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and the like, making life on earth much harder for humans. At the same time, a sub-species of humans have emerged called “Orogenes.” Orogenes are humans who have the ability to control energy. They can quell the earthquakes by manipulating and transferring the energy in ways that protect human civilization (hence the name “The stillness”). Orogenes are both feared and necessary. They are considered freaks and subhumans and feared because they can use their energy to hurt humans just as much as they can to help them. Society has created a system where Orogenes are taken away from their families to train to be “safe” and productive members of society. Orogene children, when they are discovered, are killed by fearful mobs if they cannot be rescued in time and sent away. Finally, there is a third faction in this war between the earth and humans, a group called the “Stone Eaters.” Stone Eaters are living organisms that look like stone statues and move slowly, but they can morph in and out of the earth, traveling across the earth almost instantly. They have an as of yet unknown agenda in the struggle for the future of the earth.
Essun, Damaya, and Syenite are all “Orogenes.” We meet Essun at the beginning of the novel. She is a middle aged woman living as an orogene-in-hiding in the comm (community) of Tirimo. She married a “still” (normal human) and they had two children, daughter Nassun and son Uche. She comes home from her job as a teacher at the Creche (school) to discover her son Uche dead. She quickly surmises that her husband Jija has killed him after discovering that he was an orogene. Jija has taken her daughter and left. Essun, knowing that Nassun is also orogene, fears for her life and sets out to follow him and save her daughter. Simultaneous to this event is a large explosion that begins at the equator and moves across the whole continent, killing people who are close by and unable to seek shelter. This event sets off something called a “season”, which is a time of geological uncertainty that throws the human race into survival mode until the earth stabilizes. It is every person for themselves; comms lock down and only welcome outsiders if they can contribute to the longterm survival of the comm. As Essun takes to the road, she is traveling at the most dangerous time to be commless, or outside of the security of a community. Along the way she meets Hoa, a stone eater in disguise, and Tonkee, a commless geomist (geomist = scientist). They journey together, ultimately joining the comm of Castrima. Lets leave Essun there so as not to spoil anything.
Woven into Essun’s narrative are the narratives of two other orogene women. Damaya is a little girl who grows angry with a bully on the playground one day. Her anger boils up into a burst of energy and, just like that, she and everyone else discovers that she is orogene. Her family hides her for a few days until a Guardian (a group of powerful people who control the orogenes) named Schaffa to take her to the capital city to study at the Fulcrum, an academy for orogenes. Damaya learns how to harness her power and to become a “safe” orogene.
The third woman is the Fulcrum-trained orogene Syenite. All fulcrum-changed orogenes get new names that are geological in nature. Syenite has been paired with a very powerful orogene named Alabaster for the purposes of procreation, in order to sire stronger orogenes. She is also apprenticed to him and they travel on fulcrum assigned missions to quell disturbances in the earth, etc. On one particular trip, she is asked to use her power to dredge a shallow harbor for a coastal comm in order to allow them to trade more successfully. In the process of doing so, she pulls up from under the sand an obelisk, a powerful geological stone formation. In it is embedded a Stone-Eater who is trapped. This action causes her and Alabaster to be considered dangerous by the guardians, and they are forced to flee.
Book 38: The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jesimin
I spoke at length about volume 1 to get your appetite whet. I can’t say nearly as much about volumes 2 and 3. without giving away the secrets of volume 1. The Obelisk Gate picks up Essun’s story again as she and her friends from Castrima are forced to abandon their home and take to the road to find a more habitable place to survive the season. Essun learns from the stone eater Hoa that Father Earth is at war with the humans and that he is planning to make the earth inhabitable for humans. Hoa and Alabaster teach Essun how to use her power to connect to obelisks and to connect them into an “obelisk gate” that can be used to catch the moon. Previously, we learn, the moon was thrust from earth’s orbit by human misuse of the earth’s energy. The earth is angry; however, Hoa, Alabaster, and others believe that if they can catch the moon as its orbit brings it close to earth again they can make peace with the earth and humans can prosper in harmony with the earth and the stone eaters.
Essun’s story is told in tandem with the story of her daughter Nassun. Previously, Nassun was kidnapped by her father Jija after he killed her brother for being an orogene. Now, we travel with Nassun and Jija as they flee from Tirimo. Jija quickly discovers that Nassun is also orogene, but he cannot bring himself to kill her. Nassun, knowing her precarious circumstance, plays coy and appeals to her father’s love for her to insure her survival. Eventually, Jija takes Nassun to a new comm that he’s heard about called Found Moon. He’s heard rumors that there are people at Found Moon that know how to cure orogenes. When they arrive at Found Moon, the guardian Schaffa greets them and Nassun begins her formal training as an orogene. Nassun grows in her abilities and eventually finds that she is able to access the obelisk gate. Meanwhile, her father has discovered that she is not being cured and grows angry. Nassun kills him to prevent him killing her. Is anger, representative of all human hate for orogenes leads Nassun to accept to help of a mysterious stone eater to access the obelisk gate and send the moon crashing into the earth, destroying all humans.
Book 39: The Stone Sky by N. K. Jesimin
The final installment in the trilogy develops as Essun and Nassun both pursue the obelisk gate with contrary purposes. To this story is added the backstory of Hoa and the stone eaters. From this story, we learn how the earth became angry with humans and why the world that our current heroes occupy exists in the first place.
I won’t say much here; I’ve already said more than I intended about the first two volumes! It is a well-written conclusion to a fabulous story.
The key themes of the trilogy—human exploitation of the earth, the propensity of humans to exclude others who are different, to gather in like-minded societies based upon mutual benefit—are unapologetically front and center in Jemisin’s world. Humans are deeply connected with the land and it is precisely because of this deep connection that the earth is so dangerous; humans have betrayed the earth and now they fear that the earth will betray them. The dominant society has killed and enslaved orogenes out of fear and now orogenes have the power to destroy society. A cosmic comeuppance is in the works and the only thing that can prevent it is the good will of an abused and abandoned orogene woman.