Tag Archives: environment

The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin

The third and final installment in N. K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy, The Stone Sky, continues to deliver.  (The first two books are The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate.) It has everything anyone would want from a strong fantasy story — climactic battles, death-defying acts of bravery, and heart-tugging moments between characters. But, it is done in a way and in a world that is both unique and goes the extra step to pull you in, to make you care for these characters.

Jemisin’s world is so unique and so well developed, but even more importantly, her characters are deep. Characters that I hated in the first two books because they seemed so evil are given their own voice and own perspective. In the end, you realize that they aren’t evil but that their motivations are so against the protagonist that they seem evil. When they suffer, you feel for them.

And, this is probably the thing I’ve liked most about her books. Her worlds are grey. They are nuanced. There is no absolute evil, there is no absolute good. Good characters do bad things and bad characters do good things. Even the overarching conflict that drives the plot is about survival, of both sides. One side isn’t trying to conquer the world just because, but rather, both sides are fighting to exist, in some sense. It’s just that the fight ends up taking place on a planetary scale.

As in the previous two installments, Jemisin delves deep into issues that affect us in real life. There are questions about slavery, for example. In her world, there is a class of people that can control, to some degree, the tremors that wrack their world. These people — orogenes — have been subdued and controlled by regular people. They are treated as non-human. But, from the point of view of the regular people, this is almost essential. As one character states, “Orogenes are essential. And yet because you are essential, you cannot be permitted to have a choice in the matter. You must be tools — and tools cannot be people.”

The other big issue she tackles is the environment and people’s impact on it. It turns out that the horrible state that the current people find their world in is the direct consequence of a previous civilization’s attempt to extract energy from the planet. In some sense, the planet rebelled.

The broad theme of Jemisin’s book is subjugation and what happens when the subjugated, whether it be people or the planet, rebel. Whether it is an individual, a class of people, a whole civilization, or even an entire planet, at some point, things break, people can’t take any more, the environment shatters. What are the consequences when society or culture is built upon subjugation? “Some worlds are built on a fault line of pain, held up by nightmares. Don’t lament when those worlds fall.” There are lessons for all of us in The Broken Earth.

This is one of the best fantasy trilogies I have read, with characters that are meaningful, plots that engage, a story that is relevant, and a world that is nuanced and complex. I give it 5 stars.

An aside that I found interesting. Jemisin has a group of characters — called the stone eaters — that can communicate with each other through subtle tremors in the earth. They create microscopic earthquakes that they use to talk to one another. It is interesting how this is similar to the communications that the mechanical characters use in Ian Tregillis’ The Mechanical. The robotic characters there communicate via subtle changes in the motion of their gears and springs. In both worlds, these are the subjugated beings and they both find secret ways to communicate. An interesting coincidence.


The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin

19161852You can tell a book is a real page turner when you get through most of it on an international flight. You can tell that the series is even better when you read the sequel on the return flight. That’s how good The Fifth Season and its sequel, The Obelisk Gate, are.

N. K. Jemisin has created a unique world in which the perils of the characters are trumped only by the perils of the planet they inhabit. The Stillness, as the world is known, is anything but. Constantly racked by earthquakes and volcanoes, the inhabitants of this world have learned to survive in the so-called “fifth season”, when weather patterns, food production, and the very survival of humans is disrupted. Against this backdrop exist a set of humans who have the power to control, at least to some degree, these tremors. For this, they are feared and controlled.

Jemisin’s world is almost as much as a living, breathing entity as her human characters, but not quite. Her human characters are simply outstanding, with a depth that goes beyond typical “non-player character” levels of superficialness and delves deep into what makes them tick. Good guys are shown to be cruel and bad guys are given a deeper side that evokes some sympathy for their actions. This is a world that is not black and white in any sense. Rather it is a world of grey burning in fire.

26228034Through this world, Jemisin explores complex social questions with a depth and a bluntness that is captivating. She explores questions of social standing, of slavery, of discrimination and persecution, in a way that adds to her story. At one point in The Obelisk Gate, a community is deciding who gets to stay and who should be forced to go, all based on how they were born. The protagonist disrupts the proceedings with the declaration: “No voting on who gets to be people.”

The world that Jemisin has created is complex, not only in the way that it is constantly under threat of another massive earthquake, but also in how the humans have responded to their circumstances. She delves into how people treat other people as well as how people treat their planet: “Then people began to do horrible things to Father Earth. They poisoned waters beyond even his ability to cleanse, and killed much of the other life that lived on his surface. They drilled through the mantle, to get at the sweet marrow of his bones.” Ultimately, “there is a not-insubstantial chance that life will win its war, and destroy the Earth.”

Finally, Jemisin’s characters warrant a few more words. Both The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate follow an interesting narrative in which three different character arcs are developed in parallel as the story evolves. Not much more can be said without giving away too much of the plot, but suffice it to say that this leads to a very interesting narrative structure that keeps the story moving along without revealing too much at once.

Overall, as one might guess, I really enjoyed these two books and highly anticipate the third and final one in the series. Jemisin has created a rich world with a long and detailed history that directly impacts the story. How she resolves it all, how her characters survive what is coming, are questions that I am really looking forward to seeing answered.