Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we? Get it over with and move on to more interesting things.
So begins the beautiful, haunting, and apocalyptic Broken Earth Trilogy, written by N.K. Jemisin. It begins with The Fifth Season (2015), continues with The Obelisk Gate (2016), and concludes with The Stone Sky (2017).
The trilogy is a masterpiece in fiction writing, an utterly unique blend of science fiction and fantasy. Jemisin crafts a completely novel world and story unlike anything else I’ve seen in the genre(s), and the books stayed with me long after I finished reading them.
As quoted above, the first book literally begins with the end of the world. The world is a supercontinent known as the Stillness, a rather ironic term because it is geologically unstable and wracked with quite regular earthquakes and volcanoes. Every few centuries, a particularly catastrophic event occurs that upends the climate, known as a Fifth Season. These seasons are each unique in their horrific effects, but all result in an extended period of famine and misery for humans.
Fortunately, supernaturally gifted people known as Orogenes exist, who possess the power to suppress the random destructive geological events. However, they also have the almost unfathomable ability to cause earthquakes and volcanoes, and Orogenes are generally feared by bulk of ordinary humanity. When an Orogene is born — which is often a hereditary power but can also arise unexpectedly from ordinary parents — a powerful organization known as the Fulcrum takes them in to train them, direct them and, if the need arises, kill them. Each Orogene is assigned a Guardian to protect and control them, and the Guardians have special powers of their own that allow them to neutralize Orogeny.
At the start of the novel, the balance between humans, Orogenes, and Guardians seems quite stable. A network of Orogenes has been organized to stabilize a great part of the land, allowing an Empire called the Sanzed Equatorial Affiliation to thrive. But then an Orogene, with the aid of other mysterious forces, tears a massive volcanic rip through the center of the Empire’s capitol city and extends it from one end of the continent to the other. A new Fifth Season has begun, but this one — unlike those past — will last for a thousand years or more. There is no hope for humans to survive in the famine and toxic environment which will persist over a millennium. The End of the World has come.
The first novel, The Fifth Season, introduces us to the world of the Stillness through the eyes of several women. We follow the travels of Syen, a four-ring Orogene, as she learns to build her power through the tutelage of Alabaster, a master ten-ring Orogene. We see how the Orogenes are trained, brainwashed, and exploited through the experiences of Damaya, a young girl who is passed into the care of the Guardian Warrant when her powers manifest. And, in the wake of the apocalypse, we suffer along with Essun, an Orogene mother of two in hiding, as she struggles to survive. These disparate paths converge by the end of the novel, setting the stage for a quest to see if there is any way to save humanity — and whether there is anything in fact worth saving.
This quest, broadly speaking, is the focus of the latter two novels in the trilogy. But along the way we learn much, much more about the history of the Stillness, the nature of Orogeny, and the different forces working against each other in the turbulent world. In addition to the Orogenes and their effective slavers, the Guardians, there are the Stoneeaters, statue-like stone beings of unfathomable power. The origin of the Stoneeaters will be revealed in the course of the trilogy, and a fourth surprising, and key, faction, will be exposed by the end of the series. Jemisin has crafted a unique, intricate, and mysterious fantasy world, and much of the joy in reading The Broken Earth series is seeing how the seemingly jumbled pieces introduced in the first novel fit together to form a beautiful and dark history and cosmology.
Upon reading the novels, it is clear that race relations and racial injustice form an overarching theme throughout. The Orogenes are an overall powerful group, and though peaceful, they are feared and hated because of the potential they hold. They are also basically slaves, forced into the service of humans and Guardians; the horrible nature of this servitude becomes gradually more clear as the plot develops.
Environmental issues also feature heavily in the trilogy. The Earth of the Stillness is not simply damaged, it is broken: the implication being that its current condition was actively inflicted upon it in the past, through the hubris and foolishness of humankind. That story will also be told by the end of the third novel.
There really isn’t much more I can say to praise the books without giving too much away; part of the thrill of reading the series is assembling, piece by piece, an understanding of all that has happened and all that needs to be done. But I hardly need to praise the books at this point: The Fifth Season won the Hugo award for best novel in 2016, and The Obelisk Gate won the Hugo in 2017. As of this writing, The Stone Sky has been nominated for the Hugo for Best Novel in 2018, and the entire trilogy is up for the award for Best Trilogy! In my humble opinion, all of these accolades are well-deserved. It is worth noting that The Fifth Season is also currently being adapted as a television series for TNT.
I should conclude by noting that this trilogy is not light reading! It is a grim and bleak story that goes to some very dark places in the course of its telling. This is not a criticism, but I mention it to give readers an idea of the type of story they are getting into. It troubled and haunted me for quite some time during and after I read them.
If you haven’t read The Broken Earth trilogy, it is highly recommended. This is one of the most unique and powerful stories that I’ve read in a long, long time.