Magic and Orogeny within Fantasy World-building

In my own time reading the series, orogeny has been one of the most unique and interesting aspects of The Broken Earth trilogy. Its process and descriptions always seem to interest me, and in any passage describing I always find myself picking apart to learn its system and internal logic. While on one level this is purely for the fun of immersing myself in the world and having a more fun understanding of orogeny, understanding the systems and how it compares to other fantasy influences can be important to understanding Jemisin’s work to a deeper extent.

Orogeny fulfills a role in the Stillness similar to how magic would in a more traditional fantasy setting. Within one of her blog posts discussing magic, Jemisin’s outlines many of her own thoughts and theories on magic within written fantasy, and she seems to have stuck to her beliefs in creating the system within the Stillness. Orogeny and its details are not laid out in clear detail, but rather hinted at and revealed at Jemisin’s pace.

I’ll briefly go over some of the basics of orogeny.

The actual process of orogeny is described in often loose details, attributing much to vague feel. Orogene’s can control the earth’s movements, and do so dangerously. If they lack control emotionally or through inexperience, they can “ice” anyone nearby, turning them into stone. Orogenes can feel around within the earth but are limited to what they can sess (or sense/feel) through. Most orogenes within the text use a “torus”, the orogene’s grounding and circle of influence, “the torus whips into a blurring, blistering spin, and explodes outward. You’re so close that it almost catches you” (The Stone Sky, 120). Because of this, most orogenes prefer to stay grounded and connected with the earth, where they can concentrate. However, some greater orogenes such as Alabaster was able to quell quakes while on the move “three days after she first noticed him quell microshakes. He’s done it again now, while they wait for dinner… he yawned as he did it, though of course it must have taken some effort. Orogeny always costs something” (The Fifth Season, 118). 

Orogeny is unique to its world, yet still shares similarities with the systems of other fantasy settings. Some of these basics elements can be found in other fantasy properties. Stronger orogene’s can perform greater tasks within the earth, and sense anomalies and differences through it, similar to alchemy in Fullmetal Alchemist or bending in the animated Avatar series. Its seemingly random distribution within the population and light hereditary elements seems to share similarities with systems such as the Force in Star Wars.

Even beyond the functions of orogeny, its place in the world also share some similarities. The negative status of orogenes in society shares the concept of persecution with other literary series such as The Witcher. Even things tied to orogeny such as Guardians and the Fulcrum have their similarities in other fantasy worlds such as Dragon Age, such as apostates (orogenes), magic countering Templars (guardians), and a wider organization dedicated to controlling magic, the Chantry (the Fulcrum).

While looking at similar magic systems in other fantasy is a fun exercise, it does have value in reveal some core, basic elements of orogeny within the text. Orogeny is rare, complex, dangerous, and innate. Looking at similar series, these elements always result in the magic user’s persecution from society, both in darker setting such as The Witcher and Dragon Age, and even the lighter-hearted Avatar and Star Wars. Additionally, the societies within these other fantasy settings also form to respond and in times revolve around these rare and persecuted abilities. This common thread highlights this aspect of orogeny and magic within these series, and it reveals some wider and core elements of what Jemisin aimed to apply to the entire world of the Stillness.

Yet, despite having many of these common elements of other mystical systems within fantasy, Jemisin’s special elements of orogeny make it uniquely suited to its world and define not only the system itself but the Stillness.  Orogeny is within the Stillness is not only an innate talent but a primal talent. Babies and other young orogenes within Jemisin’s world have the ability to cause catastrophe (a property abused by the Fulcrum to create node maintainers). Further education around orogeny is often not in amplifying the skill, but learning to control it and direct it. Orogeny sessing also applies mainly to stone and the earth. For example, water and islands create large areas where orogene’s cannot sess the area. One of the most significant elements of orogeny is that it derives its power from the earth. Where most systems and fantasy worlds would see this as a benign or even positive thing, the setting of the Stillness causes this to be a negative and dangerous thing, drawing energy from the enemy. Further developments of orogeny reveal that its more powerful usage revolves around sacrifice,  “You can’t stop it. You can, however, direct it. In the instant that you have, you decide which body part you can afford to lose” (The Stone Sky, 120).

Analyzing these more unique elements of orogeny allows us to look at how the system reflects the unique aspects of the Stillness. Of course the obvious thematic things, such as orogeny’s focus on earth and the importance of stone and earth within The Broken Earth series. But even this presents some other perspectives. Water is a blind area for orogenes, and this is reflected in the people’s view of large bodies of water, it is seen as dangerous and unpredictable. The primal element of orogeny is important. The society within the Stillness is a primal society, unlike many similar fantasy worlds with similar magic systems. Comms are simple and almost new, none persisting long enough to be thousands of years old, rather than a grand society based around ancient cities and governments. Its post-post-apocalyptic setting creates a world based on primal survival and instinct. “Taking magical power from the enemy” is not entirely unique to the Stillness, nor is drawing power from the earth, but this combination certainly outlines many themes within the world. Jemisin’s introduction of sacrifice to orogeny within The Stone Sky leads me to believe these elements will reflect themselves within Essun and Nassun’s own personal plots.

The magic within a fantasy world often conveys the themes of the world within its details. As a reader, I often try to compare the magic systems within fantasy texts to other, to get a sort of core understanding of the system. Authors often like to borrow from other mythologies, and many times what seems to be basic details such as innate ability vs learned ability has large connotations for the rest of the world. By looking at what properties authors borrow from, we can see their thought process in creating the world. Additionally, the most interesting and powerful aspect of magic systems within fantasy lies within its small idiosyncrasies. By looking at these elements, we can find hints to the author’s own voice and overall message purely within the world building.

On another level, I find looking at magic systems within fantasy to just be a lot of fun.

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