Review: The Broken Earth Trilogy
Updated: Sep 23, 2021
The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky - by N.K. Jemisin (2015, 2016, 2017)
On the recommendation of my brother Jason, who is my go-to for science fiction/fantasy book recs, I embarked upon this pretty epic three-book-series tale, called collectively The Broken Earth Trilogy. I was particularly interested because the author, N.K. Jemisin, is one of very few women of color in the sci-fi/fantasy world, which has traditionally been dominated by white men. That's not to say that POC sci-fi/fantasy authors don't exist, but that they often don't make it to the mainstream - less true in recent years, but "the classics" are often attributed to, for instance, Tolkien, Bradbury, Martin, Asimov, King, etc.
Jemisin was the first African-American to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel for all three of the books in this trilogy, and won the Nebula Award for the final book.
A few years back I read The Magicians trilogy, by Lev Grossman. When I picked up the first book I didn't pay much attention to the author. About a quarter of the way through the book, though, I thought, "Oh, this HAS to be written by a while male." I can't even remember what exactly it was, but it was so clear from the characters, their motivations, and their racial and gender identities. By contrast, the Broken Earth series is so refreshingly, obviously written by a woman of color. Jemisin not only creates a cast of characters who are primarily dark skinned, but also assumes a fluidity of gender, featuring gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender characters. I love how diverse these books feel without it having to be pointed out. It's like, "This just IS the way the world looks. Now let me tell a good story about these people."
The series is very accessible - great for those who aren't regulars to sci-fi/fantasy genres. And the world-building is really phenomenal. I don't know if I've every read something that so masterfully creates an entirely new world, with its own rules, races and languages, etc., while still also making it so relatable to today's real-world people and issues (I'm guessing Tolkien also did this, but - GASP! - I have not read him). I will say that you have to be all-in if you're going to read this series, because, as with any complete and comprehensive world, it's an intricate place with a complicated history. I found it a bit challenging to listen to this series on Audible. Some books are just better suited to the sit-down read.
The novels are set in The Stillness, a super-continent ravaged by catastrophic environmental disasters that happen once every few centuries called "fifth seasons" (and while the writing never feels preachy, there are definite parallels to current climate change issues). In this land live a group of people called Orogenes, who have the power to control the heat and energy of the earth (and every other living thing), thereby helping to prevent earthquakes and other natural disasters - or causing them. Some even have the ability to control the giant, seemingly-obsolete obelisk crystals that hover above the earth, which are a throwback to an ancient civilization, or "deadciv," that created and used them (I won't say how or why).
Of course, because of their power, and the fact that they must be trained to use it properly without inadvertently killing everyone in their midst, Orogenes are feared, and seen as less than human. There are also Guardians, who find, help to train, and monitor young Orogenes, at times trustworthy protectors, at times super shady people (people?) with a hidden agenda. And then there are the Stone Eaters, also straddling the trustworthy-or-shady line.
The novels follow three female Orogenes across the Stillness at different time periods, but all within the time frame of just before and during a new "fifth season," where a rift in the continent has been opened up and volcanic ash begins to obscure the sun. The Fifth Season begins, "This is the way the world ends. Again." So, we know what we're marching towards. The ending isn't really a secret. But how it all unfolds proves to be fascinating and very unexpected.
If you're feeling like, "I'm so over post-apocalyptic novels"... I get it. I do. But try this anyway. I'm pretty picky about my post-apocalyptic fiction because there IS so much of it, and it all starts to blend together a bit in my mind. This series is very unique, however, and so well thought out and well written. (Besides the fact that - I do have to note - I found a total of 7 typos in the 3 books! But that's not bad writing, that's bad editing.)
Apparently, the first book, The Fifth Season, is being developed into a TV series (scroll down to almost the end of that link for info on this development). Not clear when it will actually be released... rights were obtained back in 2017, so who knows. This could be another "Scorsese and DiCaprio are making a Devil in the White City movie" tease, which they've only been talking about for an ACTUAL DECADE. Here is the latest "but it's really happening this time" article. OH YEAH?! I'll believe it when I see it! (I'm not scream-crying, YOU'RE scream-crying!)
But anyway. Um. What was I talking about. Right, The Fifth Season. I'd be excited to see a TV version of this, if done right. It could be really visually stunning, and if it does well, they've got two more books to pull from, too!
Thank you to Jason for recommending this author and series!
2016, 2017 & 2018 Hugo Award for Best Novel for each book
Nebula Award for The Fifth Season
UP NEXT: So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo.
I am reading this book for a new (second) book club I've joined, called Serve Me The Sky Book Club, run by Rochetser mover-and-shaker Emily Hessney Lynch.
The book club will be meeting monthly at Writers & Books. If you're interested in learning more, or contacting Emily, click here.