A fantasy novel that doesn’t disappoint despite the high praises and expectation. The first book of The Broken Earth trilogy by N. K. Jemisin. It’s the winner of the Hugo Award 2016, making her the first African-American writer to win a Hugo Award in Hugo Award for Best Novel category. Even more impressive, “the three books of her Broken Earth series have made her the first author to have won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in three consecutive years for all three novels in a trilogy.” (Wikipedia) There are no spoilers in this review, so just relax and read on.
The feature of the world itself plays a big part first of all. It’s a world which, since the beginning of history, has in its good days had constant earthquakes (a bit like Japan), and in its bad: extinction-level disasters. And people have developed strategies to survive (this element reminds me of The Three-Body Problem a lot). One thing I remember from my school days: peoples and cultures are shaped in certain ways over centuries and the land they inhabit is one of the major influencing factors. That’s certainly true in this case.
At the beginning of the story, an unprecedented earthquake has just ripped the continent in two and levelled the capital city, which in recorded history has never before been destroyed. The book follows three characters: a woman, whose toddler son was killed and whose daughter was kidnapped by her husband, travels across the land in the aftermath of the earthquake to hunt him down. A small girl, who possesses a supernatural power that’s feared and despised by her family and ‘normal people’, is taken away to learn to control and harness this power. And a young woman is sent out by the earthquake-controlling institution on a routine assignment that turns out to be complicated and dangerous.
Jemisin clearly did a lot of scientific research about volcanos and rocks. The world-building feels solid and thought through, in terms of geography and geology. She also did a lot of background history-building that stretches back thousands of years. See Appendix 1: A catalogue of Fifth Seasons that have been recorded prior to and since the founding of the Sanzed Equatorial Affiliation, from most recent to oldest. It’s fascinating and draw-dropping to read. There are also folklore, ancient tablets with wise sayings, and history book quotations scattered crossed the book. All of these feed into the worldview and they give depth to the current story. People’s actions and decision-making are deeply rooted in the worldview, making the characters and the stories reasonable and real.
There is a dictionary at the end of the book (Appendix 2: A Glossary of Terms Commonly Used in All Quartents of the Stillness). I would have loved it even more if I knew it was there when I first started reading rather than all the way till I finished. English is my second language and I know nothing about geology, I wrongly categorised many unfamiliar geological terms into ‘made-up word’, when they are actually just normal English. I couldn’t tell which were unfamiliar English words (e.g. ‘stratum’), which were made-up words for this fictional world (e.g. ‘geomest’). That baffled me for a bit.
The atmosphere is dark, heavy and tragic throughout. During the second interlude, it mentions in passing that good and peaceful things did happen. The narrator chooses not to include those materials. But I think at least some of the good and peace should be told so that when the enemies come and shatter it all, the readers feel more for them and it’s more impactful. However, the darkness and anger are genuine and come from the heart. On the page opposite the copyright info, where authors usually dedicate the book to certain people, Jemisin wrote, “For all those who have to fight for the respect that everyone else is given without question”. And Jemisin was clear in her Hugo Award ceremony speech that she drew on the history of the black people and her own experience. It’s telling especially in this moment of history.
Back to the novel, there are still many unsolved mysteries and unclarified background stories by the end. But because of the way the story is told, it’s very clear that the end of book one is far from the end of the story. It doesn’t feel like there are many loose ends not tidied up, rather it really makes me want to continue. The second book, The Obelisk Gate, in this trilogy, beat Death’s End in 2018 and won the Hugo Award for Best Novel. That says something. Death’s End is part of the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, which together are my favourite sci-fi books of all time (see my review of the book one here). Really looking forward to reading the second book.