The Broken Earth
by N. K. Jemisin
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Book 1: The Fifth Season / Book 2: The Obelisk Gate / Book 3: The Stone Sky
EDIT: This page was originally uploaded in June of 2016. Now it's August 2017. I've just finished a second read of The Fifth Season, and liked it much more this time around. I was able to better appreciate the world-building, and several details started to make more sense. I've edited the review to reflect my new opinion.
This is the way the world ends...again, and again. Not with a whimper, but a very loud crunch. The title of the first book refers to a cataclysmic event that marks the end of one historical era, and the long, slow climb back up to civilization.
The Fifth Season is the beginning of a trilogy, collectively known as the Broken Earth. It won a Hugo last year, and was also nominated for the World Fantasy, Locus, and Nebula awards. I'm not sure why my first read of it was less than satisfactory. Possibly because of my general uneasiness with the fact fantasy does not have to adhere to logic. While it has generally been classified as fantasy, there are certain elements that put it in the realm of science fiction. First, it's set several millennia into our own Earth's future, at least I think it is. I could be wrong, and several other comments I've read say it is another planet altogether. Maybe it's an alternate Earth, but definitely one transformed from our reality. The planet is referred to as Earth several times, its inhabitants human beings. That could merely be for convenience, it might be a far future humanity which has settled another world. I might have missed a couple of clues the first time that could settle the debate, and the very last sentence is probably the biggest one.
The story tracks three characters through different timelines, and at first I was confused as to their chronological order. Two segments are written in third-person, the other in second-person present tense, which was a bit jarring. That's the one that eventually proved to be furthest down the timeline. The three are orogenes, people who have the ability to move earth, rocks, and other elements (or alternately, keep them from moving). They are similar to, but much more powerful than, the Earthbenders from the Avatar: The Last Airbender show. It seems this may be an evolutionary development, brought about by the extreme volatile nature of the Earth's crust, mantle, and tectonic plates. What may have caused this is in one of those clues previously mentioned. Orogenes can both sense (sess) seismic activity, and control it, through their sessapinae, an organ that is located in the neck, at the conjunction of spine and brain stem. Orogenes are feared in most communities since even babies can cause great damage without realizing it. However, it is also believed that orogenes can be useful if trained properly, so many are taken to the Fulcrum, a training center in Yumenes, the largest city of the Stillness (the colloquial name of the large continent). As they gain control over their abilities they are awarded rings as a badge of their service.
The three characters are: Damaya, a young girl taken from her family by a Guardian, transported to the Fulcrum for training; Syenite, an adult orogene woman paired with a more experienced man for a mission in the coast city of Allia (as well as with the injunction they are to produce a child); and Essun, a woman who has escaped the Guardians, married a "still" (someone without orogenic ability), and given birth to a son and daughter, both orogenes. Syenite, who has achieved four rings, and her mentor Alabaster, a ten-ringer, are tasked with clearing Allia's harbor to allow for larger ships to dock. Instead of the coral formations they expect to be their only problem, they uncover an obelisk which has apparently been buried there for countless years. Other obelisks are occasionally visible hovering in the sky, but no one knows their origin or purpose. Information concerning them in stonelore, the historical records of past civilizations and cataclysmic Seasons, is vague and confusing. Beyond that I don't want to recount much of the plot, nor detail the connection between the three women. The first connection isn't revealed until almost 3/4 of the way through the book, although I had begun to suspect it, thus I was not surprised by the next revelation a bit later. Unfortunately, what we know by that time negates some of the tension in scenes of the middle timeline.
If this is fantasy, some of my quibbling questions might be moot. If it's to be considered science fiction, and I'm inclined to consider it such, the main problem is the logical nature of the premise has yet to be established, but of course this is just the first book of a trilogy. Were aliens involved in the transformation of Earth? Are they still around? There seem to be a few hints concerning that, and if so, I know which entities I suspect. Another question that rises from that is whether or not there has been interbreeding with humanity. Are the stone-eaters aliens, or are they a creation of human science, or are they men altered by alien science? The previously mentioned last sentence brought up something that I probably should have noticed before, and it turns out it was hinted at previously. I won't reveal what it is, but a hint is that it concerns something not mentioned earlier in descriptions of the night sky. I've read synopses that say the world is comprised of just one large contintent, but an interlude between two chapters says there may be others, but the people have not ventured far enough off shore to find out. Many aren't even aware some off-shore islands are inhabited, since it is assumed the frequent tsunamis would make that impossible. If it is all one continent, that doesn't rule out Earth, since the seismological shifting could have merged continents together, essentially reforming the fabled Pangea or Gondwanaland.
I originally gave this three out of five stars on Goodreads, but I've now boosted that to four. I'm hoping the remaining volumes will answer all my questions satisfactorily. I've started on the second book and will be adding to this review soon.
Several events early on in The Obelisk Gate seemed to confirm my suspicions that this is science fiction, it is Earth, only thousands of years, maybe scores of thousands, into the future, and that the geological conditions of the planet are the direct result of a certain astronomical event. Then...the further into the story I went, more and more fantastical elements were introduced, most of which are still unexplained. It's frustrating, even though I still enjoyed it, but Jemisin has a huge task in bringing it all together satisfactorily in the final (?) volume.
In the first book, Essun fled her comm (community) following a family tragedy. She is in search of her daughter Nassun. During her journey she is accompanied by a strange young boy named Hoa, and a wildly eccentric woman named Tonkee. Later, she realizes she knows Tonkee from a previous encounter when they were children. They come across another comm that has several orogenes in leadership positions, which is surprising, since most are either killed when they are first discovered, driven out of a comm, or sent to the Fulcrum. This comm has been surviving in hidden, underground caverns. By the end, Essun still has not found her daughter, but she thinks she knows where she is, maybe they will reunite in the next book. Nassun may prove to be a stronger orogene than her mother, maybe stronger than Alabaster, perhaps as strong as the world has ever known.
We learn a little bit more about orogenes, Guardians, and stone-eaters. The power of orogenes, which at first sounded like a form of telekinesis, may actually be more like a merging with the very fabric of reality on a sub-atomic level. I'm still puzzled about the stone-eaters. There seems to be at least two factions with different agendas, each allying with either orogenes or stills, some maybe with Guardians, but their origin and purpose is as puzzling as the obelisks. I will be very impressed if it can all be explained in scientific terms. Or if not, I want the fantasy to have an internal, consistant logic. I give Jemisin props for her world-building skills, but I'm having difficulty caring for any of the characters. They all seem self-absorbed, disconnected from everyone else, but they have all come of age in a brutal and chaotic world. Alabaster wants Essun to perform certain tasks, but won't give her all the information she needs, and later she finds herself doing the same thing with the members of the underground comm. Schaffa, who in the first book had been Damaya's, and later Syenite's, Guardian, is now controlling Nassun in a similar manner. I won't venture a guess as to who will be the hero of the story, but I won't be surprised if there isn't one, that it might all end in tragedy.
I don't have a problem with this winning the Hugo, although it did not receive my #1 vote, and my favorite book of last year didn't even make the final ballot. It's the first time in 25 years that the same author has won in succeeding years, and only the third time in Hugo history. I am looking forward to the conclusion, The Stone Sky, although I don't have it yet. I'll update this page when that happens.
The Stone Sky has already won this year's Nebula [and now a Locus for Best Fantasy], and is in contention for the Hugo. [EDIT: It won the Hugo too.] I probably should have re-read the previous book, as I did with the first one. I don't want to say too much, both to avoid spoilers (except for the last sentence), but also because I was still confused for most of the book due to faulty memory of certain characters and previous events. I will say all my questions were answered, but a re-read of the entire trilogy is in order. Not sure when, or if, I will actually do that, but if I do I might edit this page afterwards. N. K. Jemisin has made history with this trilogy. It is the first time an author has won a Hugo for Best Novel in three successive years. I have a suspicion that will not happen again in my lifetime.
As with the first book, the narrative here follows three different tracks. Two are in the 'present,' depicting Essun's continued search for her daughter, and Nassun and Schaffa's journey to the place they think will allow them to reverse the tectonic turbulence that causes the various Seasons. The third track is in the past, showing how the Broken Earth sequence began, the origin of the Guardians, the orogenes, and the stone-eaters. Quite a bit of that is sfnal in nature, showing the hubris of humanity in thinking it can control elemental forces. There is fantasy as well, particularly the notion that the Earth is sentient itself. The orogenes were created for a specific purpose, but their powers were greater than anticipated. Who knows what would have happened if the human scientists' project had continued as planned? We do know what happened when the strongest orogene tried to stop it.
There is both tragedy and triumph in the conclusion. It's possible your favorite character doesn't survive to the end. But it's not really the end for Earth, but a new beginning. The current Season might still continue for a while, and there may be others in the future, but they will likely be less severe than before. The Stillness may break up into individual continents, volcanic activity will continue, but there are still orogenes who can control the severity of the shifts. It will be a long, slow process of rebuilding, but the future looks brighter, especially in the reflected light of the recaptured Moon.
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