The Broken Earth Series by N.K. Jemisin: A Review
First thing's first. Let me explain how I normally rate books. In general, books tend to fall into a few different categories for me: 1) this is a personal classic, 2) loved it, 3) liked it and still had an emotional experience reading it, 4) it was interesting/enjoyable enough but I didn't feel much while reading it, 5) didn't really like it but finished it to find out what happens, 6) did not make it through the book. Before I even get into the story itself, let me just say that Jemisin's Broken Earth Series is for me, a personal classic! I MORE THAN LOVE these books. This is a series that I know I will come back to again and again in the future. Seriously, it had such an emotional resonance and this story will stay with me forever. As a word of caution, these books are somewhat dark (as you might expect from books about the end of the world) and not at all light and breezy reads but they are SO powerful.
The series takes place in a world called The Stillness, a Pangea-like supercontinent, that has been experiencing extinction-level catastrophes (called "fifth seasons" or just "Seasons") for as long as anyone can remember. Whenever one happens, no one knows how long they might last. Yet in spite of these Seasons, humans have managed to survive by storing up food and working together. They kind of remind me of a Game of Thrones "winter", except much much more severe! The Fifth Season (Broken Earth #1) follows the journey of Essun, Damaya, and Syenite. Essun is an orogene (someone with the ability to control the earth and can sense seismic activity and other shifts in tectonic plates) and a mother of two. At the beginning of the novel, one of her children has been killed and the other kidnapped. She embarks on a journey to find her daughter. Damaya is a little girl who is given to a guardian after her family discovers she's an orogene. She leaves for the Fulcrum (an official training center for orogenes) and begins her training. Syenite is an ambitious four-ring level orogene at the Fulcrum who is looking to work her way up the Fulcrum hierarchy. She has recently been assigned a breeding mission with a more advanced, ten-ring orogene named Alabaster, and they leave on official business. As these characters' journeys unfold, the world is about to end again! The second and third books continue to follow these characters as living in the Stillness becomes more and more precarious!
Before I delve further, I want to address a bold stylistic choice that Jemisin has made, which is to write certain chapters (Essun's POV) in second person. This is rare in literature and honestly, when I first started reading The Fifth Season, it was very off-putting. I didn't like it and I almost put the book down because of it. If you have these thoughts or feelings, IGNORE THEM AND KEEP READING. I promise, it will be worth it. Because there is a really good reason for this choice, as you will find out later ;)
Okay, now here are the elements I loved about these books:
Oh my god, the world building! So incredible. Although the people in her world don't correspond with our current conceptions of race/ethnicity/nationality, she has created a vividly diverse fantasy world that goes beyond different types of magical beings or alien species (which is usually the extent of diversity in speculative fiction). Her descriptions of people include skin color, hair color and texture, eye color and shape AND lid contours, body shape, and more. Certain physical characteristics correspond to areas of the world people are from (named after cardinal directions i.e. the Nomidlats are the Northern Middle Latitudes). For instance, people from the extreme north and south of the continent tend to have fairer skin while people from the equatorial regions are darker. There are also different ethnicities/ancestral groups, the dominant of which is Sanze. On top of this, there are different "types" of humans: humans without powers, orogenes (have the power to sense and control seismic activity), guardians (people with a supernatural ability to sense orogenes and control them), and stoneeaters (type of people who look like statues and have the power to move through the earth).
Multiple systems of stratification
In the Stillness, inequality doesn't just depend on one defining type of difference. Instead, it mirrors the real world in that it contains multiple systems of stratification. There is more than one kind of inequality, more than one kind of discrimination. Regionalism (which also corresponds to stature, skin color, and other physical features) is prejudice based on where someone is from and is prevalent in the Stillness . There is a caste system that has to do with people's roles or jobs in society (i.e. Leadership use-caste, Strongback use-caste, etc.). This system in itself is somewhat hierarchical and therefore people of some use-castes look down on others. And of course, there are the different types of people. Orogenes are criminalized, feared, and dehumanized in this society while at the same time absolutely necessary to the survival of humankind (they are used to quell earth shakes and other natural disasters). Guardians are people who have the ability to sense orogenes, are responsible for their training, and are set apart by their eyes and clothing. They are both respected and feared. And stoneeaters were legends until they began resurfacing during the course of events that happen in the series. Historically, they have also been dehumanized, excluded, and abused (while also being used). All of these different layers of stratification and divisions serve to create a complex and detailed fantasy world that reflects the realistic nature of discrimination/disadvantage. You may have heard the term intersectionality being used to discuss the way interlocking systems of power impact the marginalized. This is one of the only fantasy books/series I've ever read that really expounds on intersectionality in a speculative fiction context and does it incredibly well.
Oppression and the ways it is justified throughout society
Jemisin's world in this series does SUCH an amazing job illustrating both oppression and resilience. She focuses the most on the oppression suffered by the orogenes and how mainstream society justifies the need to control them, denigrate them. Even children orogenes are viewed as dangerous and murdering them would be widely considered an act of self defense, excused and normalized (unfortunately, this is all too familiar in today's world). Those who manage to survive early childhood get forcibly removed from their blood relatives and are taken to the Fulcrum, where they endure harsh training and abuse. Even more atrocities reveal themselves through historical records and discoveries of the main characters. At the same time, as readers, we're exposed to the way officials and other everyday citizens justify their treatment of the orogenes.
Who has the right to be angry or want vengeance
THIS. When people speak out against oppression, discrimination, racism, sexism, etc., there is inevitably pushback, usually from those who don't suffer the same oppression. The individuals who try to dismiss or minimize marginalized experiences often say the former group is "exaggerating" and/or use their anger to discredit them as being "irrational" or "too emotional". In other words, some people's anger is considered valid while the anger of The Other is often not. Instead, this anger is twisted into a justification for their oppression ("See? They're exactly as violent as we say say they are"). This dynamic is reflected in the experiences of orogenes throughout this series and is so well-explored and beautifully written. Again, just true and powerful.
Polyamorous relationship that you want to root for
Just as a disclaimer, I'm a cisgender, straight, monogomous woman, so I have no personal experience with polyamory. I also haven't read any books featuring polyamory in the past so I have no frame of reference. That being said, I absolutely fell in LOVE with the polyamorous relationship in the first book. I won't spoil anything by telling you the names of the characters involved but their love for each other is palpable and I shipped them so hard. Seriously. If you've ever thought that polyamory can't be respectful and genuinely loving, think again. Read The Fifth Season! For any polyamorous individuals out there who have also read this book, I would love to know what you thought!
Mother/daughter relationship where actions born from love end up being hurtful
The mother-daughter relationship between Essun and Nassun in these books is so beautifully portrayed. I feel like their relationship encapsulates SO MANY parent/child relationships with a simple yet endlessly intricate dynamic: Essun wants nothing more than to protect her daughter from harm and all the cruelty in the world while Nassun just wants to have fun and be a carefree kid. The second book shows how Essun's attempts to protect Nassun have hurt her and Nassun spends a lot of time hating her mother, but then also how Nassun grows to understand her mother's actions as she comes of age herself. It's crazy because for the duration of the entire series, these two characters are separated. They only reunite at the end of the final book and even then, very briefly. Yet, their connection is so clearly fleshed out and wonderfully developed. It's not rosy, or even happy at all, but it is very real and the love between them jumps off the page despite their rocky relationship.
Having a family member who has internalized society's prejudice against who you are (SPOILERS BELOW)
This is a phenomenon/dynamic I haven't seen portrayed very much at all in literature or other forms of storytelling but is something that is very prevalent in personal narratives of oppression or discrimination. As the world is slowly becoming a more welcoming place for historically disadvantaged groups, I think we tend to forget the extent to which people suffered for being different. Physical abuse, emotional abuse, subjugation by violence, and death were not rare outcomes, and for some, they still aren't. While some stories deal with the harsh treatment of those affect by racism, homophobia, etc. in society at large, I haven't seen many stories in recent memory that portray what happens when these deep-rooted prejudices are internalized by family members, the people who are supposed to love you no matter what. What comes to mind immediately are LGBTQ individuals born into conservative or religious families who then struggle with their identity because they know a parent or immediate family member might not accept them. Other examples include children of mixed race/mixed ethnicity/cross religion partnerships who may be rejected by one ( or both) side(s) of the family. I think more often than not, we want to put a positive spin on things in today's world and offer an optimistic perspective. "They'll come around!" people might say about said family members. But here is a sad but true reality: sometimes, they don't and never will. Sometimes, they don't just react negatively, but with violence. The Broken Earth series explores this dynamic between Nassun and her father, who can't accept the fact that she is an orogene. It is tragic and real and a story that desperately needs to be told.
An exploration of the changing self
Don't want to give too much away with this one but it's pretty self-explanatory when you read it. This reminds me of that quote from the Doppelgängers episode of How I Met Your Mother where Ted says: "Look, we've all been searching for the five doppelgängers, right? But eventually, over time, we all become our own doppelgängers, you know, these completely different people who just happen to look like us." I'll leave it at that.
Interplay between magic and science
This is more of a personal thing but I LOVE speculative fiction books that include both magic and science. It's so cool to see magic and supernatural abilities woven in with phenomena based in science. It's really interesting too that this series isn't based on some of the more obvious (for lack of a better term) sciences like astronomy, physics, chemistry, genetic engineering, or computer programming like a lot of other science fiction. Instead, the science-y elements are based on geology and meteorology (and okay, maybe a little astronomy but come on, space is awesome)! So cool!
In the wake of current events, I find myself feeling overwhelmed, depressed, outraged, frustrated, helpless. NK Jemisin reminds us that both in The Stillness and in our world today, things didn't just happen to turn out this way. The systems in place stem from a deep rooted history of colonization and enslavement --they're oppressive by design and they haven't disappeared. But her stories also beg the question that I cling to as a lifeline, that I wake up thinking about every day: When the world is broken, how are you going to try and fix it? What are you going to do to chip away at change, to disrupt the status quo? Jemisin's words remind me that I want these questions to remain at the forefront of my journey as an author and an academic, that I want these questions to be a driving force in the stories I tell. This woman inspires me to no end.
I literally have zero complaints about this series. I can't think of a single thing I wish was done differently or that I felt was missing from the narrative. It's just amazing, incredibly powerful, and I wholeheartedly recommend Jemisin's work to everyone!
As always, keep reading to open your minds, keep writing to open your hearts <3