So, big historic stuff happened recently in the science fiction literature world. If you haven’t heard (you probably did, because I was screaming quite loudly), author N.K. Jemisin made history not only by winning the Hugo award for best novel three consecutive years in a row, but also for having every book in a series (The Broken Earth Trilogy) win a Hugo. If you’re not familiar with the Hugo’s, it’s a pretty prestigious award that recognizes great authors in the science fiction genre, with winners like Isaac Asimov, Orson Scott Card, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Neil Gaiman.
Now comes the part where I giggle maniacally and start looking for friends who I can talk to about this wonderful series and who I can revel in its awesomeness.
Hey, you’re a person, right? A person who, perhaps, is looking for your next read? Excellent! Allow me to extol the merits of these books and inspire you to pick it up for yourself. I have fifty reasons prepared—
“Woah! Woah, woah, Hannah,” you say. “I don’t have time for fifty. I have, like, things and stuff to do.”
Well, that’s disappointing. What about twenty?
You shake your head. No.
You glance at your phone.
Five?! What about five? Pretty please?
You shrug and set your watch.
Ok, ok. Point taken. There are a lot of great books out there right now and your time is precious. And just because a few books win an award, doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll enjoy it. But let me tell you why I liked it. Here are five things I loved about these books and why I think you should read The Broken Earth Trilogy.
This post contains minor spoilers. Nothing specific, but if you’re super sensitive to that sort of thing, you should just read the books 🙂
No. 1: Kickass Narrative
Listen, I’m an English major through and through, ok? So, when I find a piece of genre fiction that does something interesting with narrative, I get very, very excited. The first book in this trilogy, The Fifth Season, is told from three perspectives: Essun, a mother who is faced with the tragic death of her child; Damaya, an adolescent girl with geology-controlling powers (called “orogeny” in the books—more on that later); and Syenite, a promising orogene (read: geology wizard) trying to work her way up in an oppressive system. Through these three perspectives we see the many layers of this world. All three characters are orogenes, and all three characters are women. And yet, by choosing to tell this story from these perspectives (and flitting back and forth between third and second person perspective), we learn so much about what it means to grow up in this world, what it means to be a part of the system, and what it means to leave that system behind. And then at the end… well, I said no major spoilers. Let’s just say the ending really cements this narrative as above and beyond brilliant.
No. 2: A Hard Magic System That’s So Sciency this Book Straddles the Sci-Fi/Fantasy Line
This book won a science fiction award, so it’s science fiction, right? Well, not exactly. Even the author won’t commit to one genre. Because, see, it has magic. And what a magic system it has. I have heard many people discuss the merits of different magic systems, with harder magic systems having stronger, more well-defined rules (think sympathy in The Name of the Wind) and softer systems having less well-defined (or no) rules (think Gandalf’s powers in The Lord of the Rings). And it’s a spectrum, right? So lots of stuff falls in between.
But I always have a lot of respect for any world-builder that can create hard systems and make it feel, well, realistic. Like, yes, this magic system could theoretically exist and if it did that would be amazing. And I think N.K. Jemisin does that with orogeny. Here you have a system of magic where certain people have an organ near the brain stem that allows them to control tectonic forces in the Earth. And it’s freakin’ badass when we see characters create earthquakes or pull up giant crystals embedded in the sediment beneath a harbor or play with thermal forces to literally turn enemies to ice. I think every magic system should have a scale on how likely you would be to pick up the magic if you could. Orogeny is a 10 for me and a lot of fun to read about.
No. 3: A Fantastic Main Character
Why do I connect with Essun? It’s hard to say. I think I was intrigued by her at first because she’s a mother, and so few fantasy heroines are. But really, I think it’s because she feels so real to me. She has neuroses and flaws. She makes big mistakes. And she surprises me. When Essun struggles with a decision, I really don’t know what path she will take, not because she’s not well-defined but because she feels like a flesh and blood person like me and in the same situations as Essun I don’t know what I’d do. But she’s also very powerful both in orogeny and her influence on others. And that’s just fun to read. While a lot of stuff happens outside of Essun’s control, I always felt like she was self-determined, that she had autonomy, which every main character should have. That’s what makes stuff interesting and keeps me reading.
No. 4: Side Characters Who Feel as Real as the Main
One thing I was actually shocked by in The Broken Earth Trilogy was how fleshed out the side characters were. Like, every side character. Even small walk-on characters were given nuance and depth. And there are people who do bad things, make bad decisions, and at no point do these characters feel like straw people or devices. In fact, the story treats them with the same sort of even handed-justice that it treats the main characters. In some ways, I am reminded a bit of the way the TV show Parks and Recreation treats its characters: everyone makes mistakes and has flaws, but that doesn’t make them any less interesting or capable of growth or change. Or maybe they don’t change, but we learn more about them and our opinions as readers change. This really resonates with me, because it feels more like the real world. And it’s one of the things that make reading this book so enjoyable. This dude who is definitely a bad guy? Oh, he turns out to be a more complicated figure later on with redeeming qualities. This person you’re sure is cold-hearted and ruthless? Yeah, maybe not so much. Having these characters be so surprising keeps the book interesting, and also helps keep an aura of hope throughout every plot point, which is, frankly, really helpful because there are a lot of dark points in these stories.
No. 5: A Complex Approach that Honors Complex Themes
When I finished the series I was, frankly, a little disappointed at first. The majority of the trilogy is so tightly crafted, I could not find a single flaw. Every character, plot point, and word choice built on the story and overall themes. But then, in the final book, a strong theme of what it means to be a mother really rises to the surface and the ending to me was sloppy. It didn’t feel built toward and didn’t really drive home the theme. And then I read N.K. Jemisin’s story of what was going on during her own life while she wrote the final novel, about her own mother dying and her dealing with that. And when I read that, I realized that some themes in the story’s we tell can’t be told cleanly but instead have to be sloppy. Life is sloppy and messy and we don’t always see the greater meaning behind stuff. Or maybe that greater meaning is really complicated and doesn’t fit nicely in the categories we want to put it in. So, I’m glad that the author didn’t try to force a theme in the last book that didn’t resonate with her own experience. The best genre fiction may not be able to tell actual facts of our world, but it can tell the truth. And that really shines through in this trilogy.
The Broken Earth Trilogy will go down as one of my favorite books of all time. I’m so grateful to the author, N.K. Jemisin, for putting so much hard work into it and producing it for the world. It is truly a gift. I hope other people read it and enjoy it as much as I did… and then come tell me about it because I HAVE FEELINGS and need to talk to people 🙂
If you’re interested in purchasing these books, you can find them on Amazon or in most bookstores (I have found them in several small indie shops in Seattle and one in Denver). You can also check out your local library. You can find N.K. Jemisin on twitter and her blog/website.