Sometimes a book series is so important that you want people to put everything aside and read it. I’m not the only one who feels this way about NK 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 the sequel Speaker for the Dead won consecutive Hugos in 1986 and 87. Now the latest Broken Earth book, The stone sky, is off. You can gobble up the entire series without interruption.
There are very slight spoilers ahead.
An enchanting world
There are many reasons why this series has been hailed as a masterpiece. There are twists and turns that you realize in retrospect have been carefully plotted, expertly suggested and well deserved. There are characters who feel like human beings, with problems ranging from the mundane (raising children 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, suppress and cause earthquakes. Somehow, the orogenes are connected to the lost technologies of a dead civilization, whose machines still circle 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 are victims of cruel prejudice.
A few very special orogenes are allowed to train in the Citadel and become masters of stopping earthquakes, volcanoes and other natural disasters. They are still treated as second-class citizens and are not allowed to live outside the Citadel for long. But they do get some liberties, and seeing their powers come to the fore is an important part of what makes the first novel in the series so compelling.
But Jemisin hardly mentions it The X-men, only with orogenes instead of mutants. She has created a sociologically complex world, and the more we read, the more we understand how the orogenes fit into it. As we travel across the planet’s one megacontinent with our protagonists, we discover that the place is full of many cultures, often at odds with each other. The brown townspeople of the tropics think the pale, country folk of the Poles are ugly idiots; the coastal dwellers are not so sure about the inland people; and of course everyone 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 origins 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, as they intertwine the tropes of fantasy and science fiction so well that it makes it impossible to separate the two genres. Although Jemisin is not the first writer to do so, she is one of the leading figures in a movement among speculative writers to break the boundaries between magic and science in their stories. In The Broken Earththe results will surprise you with their devious complexity.
I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but rest assured, Jemisin’s goal is not to make science cheaper, nor to create some sort of pseudo-rational magic system. Instead, she explores 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 say it will allow them to manipulate the greatest number of people anyway.
One of the greatest pleasures of The Broken Earth is the way Jemisin uses geology as the cornerstone of her world-building. We can explore a planet with a single megacontinent breaking apart in a series of catastrophic eruptions that are perfectly plausible – indeed, it wasn’t that long ago (in geological time) that the Earth itself went through a similar process. And this planet also has a rich geological history, with multiple mass extinctions shaping the various ecosystems we encounter. It’s rare to find an author who can convey both cultural and scientific nuance in one story, but Jemisin has done it effortlessly. That’s why she’s been invited to speak at MIT and numerous science fiction conventions.
Jemisin previously wrote a number of critically acclaimed novels The Broken Earth trilogy, including the incredible Hundred thousand kingdoms. She is clearly on top of her game. Her prose in the trilogy is beautiful, disturbing, and often quite funny. The entire series is told in 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 uncanny effect of making it feel like the novels are addressed directly to us, the audience. By the third novel, we get a satisfying explanation as to why the story had to be told this way, but not before it contributes to several fascinating plot twists.
The Broken Earth is thrilling, packed with 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 the urge to contemplate the invisible forces that propell our civilizations forward.