As I’ve been reading and thinking about the Broken Earth Trilogy, Octavia Butler and Cormac McCarthy have come to mind. The novels I’ve read by Butler make up Lilith’s Brood, while McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and The Road are two novels that resonate most with this series. Blood and family pull the moon in Jemisin’s Stone Sky. Ancestry, human hybrids, and the question of should humanity exist sit at the center of Butler’s work and are concepts that Jemisin explores. Will the world be destroyed by Nassun or saved by Nassun’s mother? In terms of life post-apocalypse, the characters of the Stillness would gut it out in McCarthy’s Western hell or crumbled cityscape. After all, theirs is a culture built on surviving doom. What sets this series apart from other works of fantasy are the larger themes Jemisin explores.
Racism and Slavery
As I mentioned in my review of The Fifth Season, the Orogene are slaves of the Empire. They are feared, controlled, and extremely useful for the survival of civilization. In The Stone Sky, we see a deeper level of racism as the people who made the obelisks viewed those other than them as less than.
How did it begin? You must understand that fear is at the root of such things. Niespeople looked different, behaved differently, were different—but every group is different from others. Differences alone are never enough to cause problems. Syl Anagist’s assimilation of the world had been over for a century before I was ever made; all cities were Syl Anagist. All languages had become Sylanagistine. But there are none so frightened, or so strange in their fear, as conquerors. They conjure phantoms endlessly, terrified that their victims will someday do back what was done to them—even if, in truth, their victims couldn’t care less about such pettiness and have moved on. Conquerors live in dread of the day when they are shown to be, not superior, but simply lucky.
In Syl Anagist, life is sacred; but, loopholes abound. Not wasting a life or not killing does not make a society ethical or moral. How do human rights fit into a society that has effectively dehumanized a group of people? Jemisin boldly explores these topics and questions as she pushes toward the end of the novel.
The Earth Will Have It’s Due
The phrase “Evil Earth” is often used throughout the series and there is this sense that the Earth is out to get people. Turns out the planet is alive and is at war with humanity. The creators of the obelisks went too far in their grand plans and ignorance. Instead of pulling out oil and minerals, like we do today, the people of Syl Anagist extracted magic. Their ultimate plan would have totally devastated both the planet and themselves, yet they had no idea. The Earth is one side of this war. The other sides include Hoa and Essun, who want to restore the Moon to Earth’s orbit and hopefully repair the wrong committed 40,000 years ago. The third power is Steel/The Gray man who convinces Nassun to slam the Moon into the Earth, thus annihilating everyone.
Motherhood and Parenting
The relationship between Essun and her children, specifically Nassun is key to the novel. It also echoes back to Lilith’s Brood for me. But for Essun, what has she done? She raised Nassun to control her powers and to hide them. In many ways, Essun internalized her own childhood in the Fulcrum and her relationship with Schaffa and used that as a model for raising Nassun. Abuse is part of Essun’s relationship and she justifies it in terms of “keeping Nassun safe.” After Jija kills his and Essun’s son in the beginning of the series and flees with / kidnaps their daughter, Essun has been on a mission to find them, exact revenge, and rescue Nassun.
But, does a child of abuse who was denied love from a parent want rescuing? How does the reintroduction of Schaffa as a surrogate father complicate Nassun’s feelings? What is the role of a parent when raising a child in a place full of racists who would want to kill or enslave them?
May The Force Be With You
Besides the geologic powers of the Orogene, it turns out there’s magic in the Stillness. Moreover, that magic seems an awfully lot like the Force from Star Wars.
As Obi-Wan Kenobi said, “The Force is what gives the Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.” When magic is described in The Stone Sky, we learn, “Magic is everywhere in the world. Everyone sees it, feels it, flows with it. In Syl Anagist, magic is cultivated in every flower bed and treeline and grapevine-draped wall.” Later in the novel magic is referred to as “the stuff underneath orogeny, which is made by things that live or once lived.”
The Force is a cool concept and though Jemisin seems to borrow from Star Wars, it still works, because she’s only using the underlying structure and not everything else in the Star Wars universe. There are no Jedi Knights, it’s not called the Force, there is no struggle against the light and the dark sides.
At the end of The Obelisk Gate, I had a lot of questions. What’s up with the Stone Eaters? Who are the Guardians? How did this whole mess of destruction begin? How do the multiple perspectives made sense from a structural sense?
The good thing is that Jemisin answers all of those questions. She fits the pieces together and provides unexpected insight into why the narrative is structured this way.
Should I Read It?
Yes, if you like fantasy read this series. If you’ve read the first two books then complete the series, it doesn’t disappoint. There are some slow moments in the beginning, specifically the early Syl Anagist chapters; but the story takes off. As I stated earlier The Broken Earth Trilogy stands apart from other fantasy series in terms of creativity, craft, and character.