N. K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth Series
The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate,
& The Stone Sky
Orbit Books 2015-2017
Dystopian Eco Fantasy, Intersectionality, and Beautiful & Powerful Prose
*Orbit Books provided a copy of The Stone Sky in exchange for an honest review*
"Let's start with the end of the world, why don't we?" - N. K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season
In the past year, I have tried to consciously read more novels by women of color. More than anything, I wanted to diversify my shelves after realizing a distinct lack of diversity. This personal challenge has allowed me to read writers and genres that I might not have normally picked up, while putting my money where my mouth is.
One author I discovered this year thanks to #bookstagram and book twitter is N.K. Jemisin. She has a number of books and series, however, I chose to start with her Hugo-award-winning series The Broken Earth. The first two books, The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate, won the Hugo for Best Novel in 2016 and 2017, respectively. I suspect that the conclusion of the series, The Stone Sky, will be a contender for the 2018 awards. (check out this awesome podcast interview with her)
I am a fantasy fan. As a child of the Harry Potter phenomenon I grew up reading a ton of fantasy novels and series. While I enjoy most genres my heart is in fantasy. After receiving a correspondence with Orbit books that they would be sending me a copy of The Stone Sky I decide I’d better read the first two books… and quick! I’ve been absorbed into the world of the Stillness for approximately the past two months.
This series is good. Really good. One of best fantasy series I've read in awhile. I literally want to read everything Jemisin has written! In The Broken Earth series she parallels the African American experience with slavery, colonialism, and prejudice, while also having characters with different gender identities & sexuality. The idealized physical beauty in the world is flips the script on our standards of Western beauty.
On top of all that she's created an interesting magical system & world based on seismology. The groups of people are broken down into Comms (communities), race, and use-caste (occupation and lineage). We learn very quickly that the world is predicated on natural disasters, called Seasons. Most of the existence of various comms is to build up their stores and defenses against impending and inevitable doom. Additionally, there is a group of second-class citizens (or slaves really) called Orogenes that are connected to earth and have the ability to manipulate the earth and draw on its energy. Because of this they are feared and hated - to the point that they are often abused and murdered if not taken to the Fulcrum. The Fulcrum trains such individuals to be "useful" and docile. There's a lot going on in terms of world building and I will admit that I was fairly confused for the first 50 to 100 pages of The Fifth Season.
However, despite the hiccups of easing into the world of the Stillness, Jemisin beautifully and thoughtfully creates a separate science fiction/fantasy world that mirrors our own. At points throughout the series, my heart sank and stomach clinched as I knew that every injustice was based on real world events and behavior. This attention to detail and paralleling of prejudice demonstrates just how poignant The Broken Earth series is. It really made me think even more about fantasy tropes that rely on Western European worldviews, traditions, and history.
I love a strong female character. And this series has many. All are complex and different. They are angry, fierce, nurturing, leaders, intelligent, compassionate, merciless, and more. I like seeing all aspects of the human experience depicted in female characters. Not all women are heroes and saviors; some are evil or indifferent. I want the spectrum of humanity reflected in fiction, including fantasy, and I think Jemisin wants that too.
Read this. Read this series right now. You'll be glad you did.