(Putting this on the third and final book of the series because spoilers but it’s a review of the series as a whole, not just The Stone Sky)
I’ve never been a huge fantasy guy. Tried a couple of times to get into The Lord of the Rings as a kid; always bounced off within the first 100 pages or so. I’ve never read it, or seen the movies. Never got into D&D at all. Harry Potter, I’ve read not a word of nor seen even a minute of the movies. Game of Thrones, the books, I tried and got through like two of them and had to just bail. I do enjoy the show still, but the actual fantasy elements, like the Dragons and the White Walkers, are the least-interesting part to me. I prefer the politics and the personalities of the humans involved.
So, even though over time I’ve gotten a little more tolerant of Orcs and Dorks, it’s still not really my jam. Which explains why I just got around to reading The Fifth Season this year instead of when it came out in 2015 and won every award for fantasy worth winning. A solid review from my friend Smeebs put it over the edge and I finally grabbed and started reading the first book of the series.
And here we are, less than two weeks later, and I’ve finished reading the entire trilogy. It’s that good.
Even though it’s considered firmly in the fantasy camp, there’s a wonderful lack of the usual tropes; no dragons, no elves, and the world refreshingly resembles 14th-Century England not in the slightest.
Instead of all of that, we get a bracingly original set of conceits to revel in, many of which make the world seem thoroughly exoctic and foreign, instead of the more-typical fantasy trope of “like Earth, but older, with a touch of magic”.
Magic does exist in this universe, but in a more defined, important way than the usual “it just exists” manner we’re more familiar with. It is generated by the Earth itself, and interacts with its inhabitants in different ways depending on what type of inhabitant they are.
And those inhabitants are a varied, creative lot. The main protagonist and many of the main characters are Orogenes; humans who can detect and manipulate the tectonic activity of the Earth itself. They can therefore unleash crazy amounts of hell in this hyper-tectonically-active world, and are therefore despised by the majority regular humans, called “Stills” by the orogenes for their inability to feel the near-constantly moving Earth. On the flipside, a properly-trained and/or powerful-enough orogene can also deflect or even stop earthquakes locally, which makes them very valuable, if they can be controlled.
Author N. K. Jemisin is VERY subtle about this, but she makes some inciteful commentary and analogies between how the orogenes (who are commonly referred to by the Stills as “Rogga”, a word that’s basically the N-word of this universe) are treated in this world and how African-Americans are treated in ours. Again; it’s SUBTLE. She does not beat you over the head with it, which is appreciated in a work of fantasy fiction. But there’s some meat to chew on here.
Orogenes are either bred by the ruling society in creches heavily guarded by, well, The Guardians, a wonderfully creepy class of overwatches/parental surrogates who have… complex relationships with their charges, or they are “feral” and only discovered as having their unique powers when, typically as children, they lash out with their uncontrolled powers in a moment of fear or anger and Everybody Dies. This complex interplay between utility, power, and threat colors every bit of their existence and relationship with the society they inhabit.
My favorite of the invented races in her universe are the Stone Eaters. Much of what they are besides the obvious feature you can deduce from their name would ruin the story, so let’s just say that they’re… super fuckin’ interesting.
These races interact in a world where the Earth itself is basically ripping itself apart. Every so often, a cataclysmic event happens that fucks up the weather so bad the inhabitants call it The Fifth Season, and much of their cultural lore concerns how to just survive through these periods of horrific climatic and environmental upheaval.
Even in between the Fifth Seasons, the planet is much more active than ours, and it basically prevents society from advancing beyond its essentially late-medieval level of wealth and functioning, even though there is much evidence of “deadcivs” lying around that indicates that, at some point in the past, their ancestors had effectively reached our own “modern” level of advancement. And even in calm periods, people have to prepare and set aside any excess wealth into storage to help them survive the next Fifth Season, which can strike at any time.
The story has elements of the classic fantasy “quest”, but it’s also more than that. It’s a grand rumination on how a society chooses to function, the cost/benefit analysis that has to occur in moments of extreme strife and privation, and, most essentially, what makes somebody “human”?
On a closer level, there’s an examination of what it means when a society’s well-being depends on the forced labor of a specific subset of it. This is where the uncomfortable analogies to our own society are strongest, and, again, without spoiling anything, I like how the author covers this aspect.
The hard part of reviewing a series like this is that the reviewer can’t go too deep into the world or what happens without spoiling the journey, which I don’t want to do. That said, let’s examine a lot of the aspects of the series I found particularly rewarding:
- The protagonists are mostly female. This is refreshing, and I don’t give two shits what the Sad Puppies (Google it, I’m not covering these shitheads at any length here other than to say that these guys whine about any book that doesn’t feature a white male lead, and go about their complaining in absolutely vile ways) have to say about it, and they’ve said more than enough. Morons.
- Most of the “good” characters are brown. Most of the “bad” ones are white. Just by description; our world’s color dichotomy doesn’t exist in this one. Again, tough shit to whoever’s feelings are hurt by this. It’s good to not instantly feel comfortable and familiar with the protagonist of a novel, which is the default state of a white male reader of fantasy fiction. It’s certainly more interesting, and isn’t that something we WANT in our books? To be clear, the brown=good, white=bad thing isn’t absolute, and this is not a universe where ANYONE gets through without making some morally dubious choices. But, from a purely literary standpoint, it’s just fuckin’ refreshing.
- One of the dominant themes is the nature of parenthood, particularly in times of societal upheaval, that is not at all the norm for books of this genre. I like her examination of this, even if it often verges on absolutely heart-breaking.
- There are elements of sci-fi as well, but only via the aspect of “ancient” civilizations having existed thousands of years before the book’s present-day that were way more advanced than that present-day culture. This isn’t a particularly original idea, but her treatment of it, is.
- I like that she doesn’t go too crazy with inventing words to replace things that already exist and have names in English. There’s a bit of that, which is just plain necessary to worldbuild and remind the reader that it’s not _our_ world this story is taking place in, but I like that even her invented words tend to be sensible enough to be immediately understandable by the reader. A child is a child, not a “birthling” or some dumb shit.
- That said, people and place names are wonderfully foreign but have their own internal consistency that is pleasing and believable. A lot of books fuck this up.
Overall, The Broken Earth is an absolutely rewarding read. There’s more than enough original ideas in the series to make it feel much fresher than most fantasy, many aspects of the series are wholly original, and the emotional flavor and impact are deep and not in the usual ways we are used to from the genre. Basically, if you’re at all a fan of fantasy or sci-fi, you’re a fool if you don’t read this series.