I don’t make absolutist statements like the one in this headline very often, but sometimes a book series is so important that you just want people to put everything aside and just read it. I’m not the only one who feels this way about N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. The first and second novels in Jemisin’s trilogy, The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate won the prestigious Hugo Award for the past two years in a row—the first time this has happened since Ender’s Game and its sequel Speaker for the Dead won sequential Hugos in 1986 and 87. Now the final Broken Earth book, The Stone Sky, is out. You can gobble up the whole series without interruption.
There are very light spoilers ahead.
A mesmerizing world
There are a lot of reasons why this series has been hailed as a masterpiece. There are unexpected twists which, in retrospect, you realize have been carefully plotted, skillfully hinted at, and well-earned. There are characters who feel like human beings, with problems that range from the mundane (raising kids in a risky world) to the extraordinary (learning to control earthquakes with your mind). The main characters are called orogenes, and they have the ability to control geophysics with their minds, quelling and starting earthquakes. Somehow the orogenes are connected with the lost technologies of a dead civilization, whose machines still orbit the planet in the form of mysterious giant crystals called obelisks. To most people on the planet, the orogenes are known by the derogatory term “rogga,” and they’re the victims of vicious prejudice.
A few, very special orogenes are allowed to train at the Citadel, becoming masters at stopping earthquakes, volcanoes, and other natural disasters. They’re still treated like second class citizens, and aren’t permitted to live outside the Citadel for very long. But they are permitted some freedoms, and watching their powers emerge is a major part of what makes the first novel in the series so compelling.
But Jemisin is hardly retelling The X-men, only with orogenes instead of mutants. She’s created a sociologically complex world, and the more we read, the more we understand how the orogenes fit into it. As we travel with our protagonists across the planet’s single megacontinent, we discover the place is full of many cultures, often at odds with one another. The brown urbanites from the tropics think the pale, rural people of the poles are ugly idiots; the coastal people aren’t too sure about the inland people; and of course everybody hates the orogenes. These tensions are part of a long and complex history that we learn more about as the series develops. There are a number of mysteries to unravel in this series, but one of them is understanding the devastating origin of prejudice against orogenes.
Combining the powers of science fiction and fantasy
Another mystery is what exactly powers the orogenes, the obelisks, and several other strange creatures with connections to the dead civilization. And this is where Jemisin’s series has been a game changer, because she’s deftly woven together the tropes of fantasy and science fiction so well that she makes it impossible to separate the two genres. Though Jemisin is hardly the first writer to do this, she’s one of the leading lights in a movement among speculative writers to break down the boundaries between magic and science in their storytelling. In The Broken Earth, the results will surprise you with their devious complexity.
I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but rest assured that Jemisin’s goal is not to cheapen science, nor to create some kind of pseudo-rational magic system. Instead, she is exploring what you might call the common ancestor of both science and magic: the urge to exert our will over nature. Some call it sorcery; some call it geophysics; some call it whatever will allow them to manipulate the largest number of people.
One of the greatest pleasures of The Broken Earth is the way Jemisin uses geology as the cornerstone of her world-building. We get to explore a planet with a single megacontinent that’s rifting apart in a series of catastrophic eruptions which are entirely plausible—indeed, it wasn’t too long ago (in geological time) that Earth itself went through a similar process. And this planet has a rich geological history too, with multiple mass extinction events that have shaped the various ecosystems we encounter. It’s rare to find an author who can convey both cultural and scientific nuance in a single story, but Jemisin has done it effortlessly. That’s why she’s been invited to speak at MIT as well as countless science fiction conventions.
Jemisin wrote a number of critically-acclaimed novels before The Broken Earth trilogy, including the incredible Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. She is obviously at the top of her game. Her prose in the trilogy is gorgeous, disturbing, and often quite funny. The whole series is told in the second person, addressed to the main characters, which is incredibly difficult to pull off. Not only does Jemisin make it work, but her stylistic choice has the eerie effect of making it feel as if the novels are addressed directly to us, the audience. By the third novel, we get a satisfactory explanation for why the story had to be told this way, but not before it contributes to several fascinating plot twists.
The Broken Earth is exciting, full of incredible technology, and powered by a dark historical mystery. It’s something you can read to escape, or to ponder philosophical questions in our own world. In short, it’s that rare series that appeals to a love of adventure, and to the urge to reflect on the unseen forces that drive our civilizations.
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