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The Broken Earth Series, N.K. Jemisin

Sunday, February 04, 2018

I don't usually write reviews of an entire series all at once, but I'm making an exception for The Broken Earth series by N.K. Jemisin. I listened to the entire series straight through on audiobook, and the experience was exactly what I hope and dream about when it comes to fantasy and sci-fi novels. It completely transported me to a different world, and no matter how long or short the drive, I was always sad when I reached my destination and had to stop listening. Beginning with the first book, The Fifth Season (the other books are The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky), Jemisin builds an intricate story full of nuance and emotion and thought-provoking themes.


Jemisin created a world that might be a future version of earth. The world is once again one large continent, surrounded by oceans with a few islands and lots of empty water. Society is divided into factions based on the type of work a person does: manual labor, leadership, storytelling, wood-working, etc...Every community, or "com", has members from each faction working together under a headman or woman. There is one group, however, that no one wants in their com, though they are happy enough to accept their help if there is an earthquake-the orogen. Orogens have the ability to control rocks and minerals, and they protect human settlements from earthquakes and volcanoes and the like. Despite their importance to the society, they are looked down on as violent sub-humans who must be controlled at all times by Guardians, who condition the orogenes to consider themselves tools rather than people.

The main character is an orogene named Essun, though we discover that is only one of her names. She has been hiding her powers by pretending to be a "still", the name for non-orogenes. She is married to the com's stone knapper, and has two children-both of whom are also orogenes. Essun does the best she can to protect them and teach them how to hide their power, but when her husband accidentally sees her son using his, he flies into a rage and kills the boy. Her discovery of his tiny body coincides with a major tectonic event that ushers in what they call a fifth season-a time when humanity must hunker down and do their best to survive the effects of what they come to call the rifting, which spews ash and smoke into the air that completely blots out the sun and covers everything in rock and ash.

Essun takes to the roads, searching for her murderous husband and her daughter. At the same time, there are other forces working in the world that make a showdown between humanity and the earth (literally, the earth) inevitable. Told through a series of flashbacks alternated with present-day action, the series has so much happening in it that I find I'm having trouble summarizing it succinctly.

One of the things I found really fascinating, and effective, was the narrative structure. Much of the novel is told in second-person (yes, I said second-person), and it is only towards the end of the series that we discover who is doing the talking, though the "you" they are talking to is evident from the beginning. It is a unique way to experience a story, and I was impressed with Jemisin's ability to keep it up for three books. The fact that Jemisin carefully builds an intricate story where all of the various strands, including her choice of narrator, come together in the end in a cohesive way is a testament to her talent as a writer, especially given that there are hundreds and hundreds of pages that had to be coordinated.

Even if the writing was not as well-done as it is, the story itself would make it worth the read. I've read a lot of fantasy novels in my time, and it is hard to find stories that are truly different. This series is like nothing else I've ever encountered. And maybe the best part-the main character is a middle-aged black woman. She's strong and smart and powerful, who can do amazing things, but she is so much more than just her power. It's not every day you find a book with a middle-aged woman as the main character that isn't about losing or finding a man, or about finding her purpose post-child-rearing. If you are a fan of fantasy, or strong female protagonists, I can't recommend this series enough.

1 comment:

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