Hugo review – The Broken Earth Trilogy by N. K. Jemisin

K. Jemisin became he first author to win three consecutive Hugo awards for this trilogy. Between 2016 and 2018 she took home the Best Novel award for The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky. If I’m not mistaken, this is also the first time all books in a trilogy won the award.  In this heavily spoilerish review, I will argue that while the first book certainly deserves all the accolades it got, the next two titles aren’t on the standard I’d expect from a Hugo winner.  Even though the worldbuilding and unique concepts are superb, I found little to like about the characters, think the author took too many shortcuts as she neared the ending, and missed a great deal of potential.

The series starts with three women: Damaya, Syenite and Essun.  All three are Orogenes: humans with a rare mutation that allows them to sense tectonic activity and shape it by their will.  They live in a world that is very tectonically active, and which occasionally suffers a catastrophic event that reduces humanity to a few barely surviving groups.  Orogenes are largely feared and hated, mainly because their skill has a side effect of flash-freezing an area around them, and they may kill other people by mistake or design.

When an orogene child is found, it is usually killed, unless a so-called Guardian finds it first. This is the fate of Damaya, who is found by Guardian Shaffa.  Guardians are living killing machines, the only ones capable of defeating orogenes. This is why they are equally feared and respected by normal humans, who defer to them when they decide to take an orogene for training.  Shaffa takes Damaya to the orogene compound, where the book follows her as she gains control over her powers and learns how to use them to prevent tectonic events.

Syenite is a full grown orogene, ostensibly sent from the Fulcrum to help remove a corral reef at a remote coast.  She is accompanied by Alabaster, a very powerful orogene, and her real task is to have him impregnate her, in the hopes of breeding a new, strong orogene.  As she tries to remove the coral reef, she causes a volcanic eruption, destroying the town.  Alabaster and her have to flee, as a Guardian tries to kill them in retaliation.  They find refuge at a remote island, where they raise their son, but Shaffa eventually finds them, the son is killed, and they flee in different directions.

Essun’s story begins the first book.  She is an older woman who just found out her husband killed their son and kidnapped their daughter.  At the same time a cataclysmic event threatens to destroy all humanity, and she leaves her village to find her daughter.  She is joined by a young, mysterious boy, Hoa.  She survives the roads packed with thousands of refugees, falling volcanic ash and feral animals, and finally arrives at a community led by orogenes.  During the journey, Hoa is revealed to be a stone eater, the member of a humanoid race of living statues with mysterious powers.

At this point, the stories of all three women converge and we find out that they are all Essun at different parts of her life.  Essun meets Alabaster at the community and finds out that he opened an enormous rift across the equator, as a preparation for an even bigger tectonic undertaking.  However, he is slowly turning into stone and soon he dies.  By that time Essun knows what needs to be done: the tectonic instability is caused by Moon having a wildly eccentric orbit, and she needs to stabilize it into a circle again.

The story now splits between Essun and her daughter Nassun, who joined the now half-crazed Shaffa.  Nassun is also training as an orogene of powers surpassing even Essun’s.  She is manipulated by another stone eater into plotting to crash the Moon into Earth.  Meanwhile, Essun’s community is attacked and severely damaged.  Her people create a caravan to a faraway city, which is still intact.  Once there, Essun follows Nassun to a preserved city from an older civilization.  There, the former hopes to restore the Moon where it belongs, and the other to use it to destroy Earth.

The books have a number of subplots, but the only one still worth mentioning is Hoa’s flashbacks into the distant past, when he and a few others were created to harness the energy of the Earth.  During the process it turned out that Earth had been sentient, and powerful enough to attempt to destroy humanity.  Hoa and his group manage to avert the disaster, but Earth turns them into stone eaters and Moon enters its new orbit.  This explains most of the decisions and twists in the latter two books.

The best thing about the series is its worldbuilding.  Jemisin managed to recreate Earth to be hardly recognizable, and created an entirely new human society.  People live mainly in small communities, in a caste system, and their entire existence is focused on surviving the tectonic catastrophes that occur every few generations.  The author managed to create a vibrant, very believable society, with its own history, customs, interpersonal relationships, prejudices and language.  This was as close to the genius of Ursula K. Le Guin as one could get.

The stories of Essun in the first book are also very compelling.  They rely very heavily on the worldbuilding, and through eyes of the three women the reader gets to discover Jemisin’s world.  While the orogene mutation may seem like a stretch, thanks to the very humanistic stories, they sound plausible.  One doesn’t need to be presented with scientific explanation for such powers to take them at face value.

Unfortunately, I started the series quite biased against it, which is why I may have found so many flaws.  I had two reasons for my bias.  First of all, the first book begins with a brutal murder of a toddler by his father.  This murder remains one of the focal points throughout the series, coloring the motivations of the main characters.  I personally can’t stand violence against the defenseless.  There were many books, including such classics as A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, which I couldn’t even finish.  Here I read on, but I already disliked the author for subjecting me to this anguish.

My second reason for my bias against the series was the writing style.  In the chapters about Essun in the first book, and throughout the entire next two books, the narrator directly addresses Essun.  Through her, he also addresses the reader.  So you, the reader, directly become part of the story.  This is often done to establish a degree of emotional investment in the characters and the story, and I am very suspicious of such tactics.

Maybe because of this suspicion I could not find a single sympathetic character in the Broken Earth trilogy.  Essun is angry, brash and selfish.  Alabaster is dismissive.  Nassun is ten years old, but acts so much older than I wasn’t able to identify with her.  Shaffa goes from a bit character to a semi-crazed enabler of Nassun’s rise to power.  He and some of the smaller characters that may have been likable is either killed off or rendered comatose.  Jemisin did a very good job with the worldbuilding, but did not seem to like any of her own characters.

However, my main gripe is with the story progression.  As I mentioned before, the first book was superb.  Jemisin introduced a world, with its new rules.  She also established her story pacing and structure.  Then she goes on to subvert everything.  First, she introduces magic into the picture.  Then a sentient Earth, which can actually take over some humans to do its bidding.  The story, meanwhile, slogs along in the second and most of the third book, only to increase in intensity for a very short final confrontation between mother and daughter.  I grew to like the structure, and the measured pace of the first book, so the other two felt flat to me.

Part of the story I didn’t appreciate was the heavy-handed political allegory.  While orogenes may be considered mutants, Jemisin treats them as a race to be enslaved, and thus they have every reason to hate the society and wish its destruction.  In the third book she introduces yet another enslaved race.  She seems to be inserting this racism everywhere, so that at the end there is only a single person who is not oppressed and not racist, and he is killed off so swiftly that you hardly remember him five pages later.  Le Guin was famous for including political philosophy in her books, but she did so with grace, and always left it to the reader to decide on the merits of her philosophy.  Jemisin whacks the reader over his head with her books, which are mercifully too thin to do any lasting damage.

My biggest disappointment, though, was the series’ missed potential.  The first book set up the world, its protagonists and its main story.  It also established a set of rules of how the world worked.  Instead of keeping the story within constraints of those rules, Jemisin later started inventing new rules as she needed.  As a result, we get nearly omnipotent characters, instead of ones that need to work with what they have and come with interesting solutions.  This was partly why I found the latter two books boring.  Moreover, Jemisin could have emulated Le Guin further and developed her own political philosophy through character development and conversation.  Take, for example, a scene where the caravan of refugees has to cross an ash-covered desert before their food runs out.  The crossing, which takes several weeks, is dealt with in a few pages.  Compare that with the ice crossing in the Left Hand of Darkness.  Le Guin filled it not only with environmental description but the bulk of her worldbuilding takes place there.  Through conversations, the reader finally understands the world of Gethen, and how its history and natural environment shaped its social customs.  Nothing deeper than hunger and starvation for a few extended paragraphs in Jemisin’s work.  The second and third book could have been real classics, instead of just sequels to a great first book.

The Fifth Season is truly a classic.  Even though I didn’t like any of the characters and couldn’t identify with them, I found the worldbuilding superb and the story so compelling that I kept on reading.  I believe this to be the case with many other readers; otherwise the mediocre second book would put people off from reading the conclusion of the trilogy.  If you want to read the story to its end, then by all means read all three books, but if you want to remember Broken Earth as a truly great work, read the first book and think of a conclusion that would satisfy you.

This entry was posted in Book reviews, Hugos and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.