One moment within The Stone Sky that really got me thinking about the series at large was on page 222, where Danel and Essun talk of the term “hero”. Heroes and heroism often find themselves within texts tackling adventure and exploration, and Essun undoubtedly fills the place a hero would be within The Broken Earth Series. But, to what extent? Especially within the turbulent times of the season casting shades of gray rather than black or white, Essun is not a hero in a traditional sense. So, is Essun a heroic character?
When looking to identify a heroic character, there are generally some solid (and often cliche) indicators to give a character that status. Further, within genre fiction that Broken Earth seems to dip into, such as fantasy or scifi, these qualities are often exaggerated. Heroic figures from traditional cultural texts such as The Epic of Gilgamesh to contemporary entertainment such as Star Wars all meet similar definitions. These characters meet trials (often triggered by forces of evil), and succeed through them utilizing positive attributes such as bravery, courage, honor, and strength. While often these heroic figures to have fatal flaws, such as Odysseus’ quintessentially tragic pride, they are most often exemplary figures in their own respective cultures. In Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker may struggle with the dark side, but beyond this personal flaw he is compassionate for his friends, courageous against the Empire, and in the end, prevails against the clear evil threat with his honor and dignity.
Essun is not a perfect mirror of these traditional forms of the hero.While her motivations are often just, such as wanting the return of her child, they are not entirely pure. One of Essuns primary goals along with the return of Nassun was to kill Jija. Within the dog-eat-dog world of the season, Essun’s primary goal is survival, even at the cost of the lives of others. Her wishes to improve the world are not for the lives of all its inhabitants, but primarily for her own children.
Part of the passage that intrigued me the most was in Essun’s own assessment of her heroism at this point in the story. “Hero? You laugh a little… Can’t help thinking of Allia, and Tirimo, and Rennanis, and Castrima. Heroes don’t summon swarms of nightmare bugs to eat their enemies. Heroes aren’t monsters to their daughters,” (The Stone Sky, 222). Essun has killed many enemies within the story, out of defense for herself or her allies.
Further, most of these enemies were not clear villains. At points, Essun even kills almost entire comms on accident, such as when she destroys Tirimo out of grief, “People run out into the streets, screaming and wondering why there was no warning, and you kill any of them who are stupid or panicked enough to come near. Jija. They are Jija. The whole rusting town is Jija,” (The Fifth Season, 59). Even those who are not explicitly innocent are most often other factions of people trying to survive the Season or commless bandits who desperately need food or resources. Even what seemed to be clear enemies at points in the series, such as Guardians or Stone Eaters, later are revealed to be more multilayered. Schaffa stands in for a villain at many points in the trilogy, yet is revealed to be a complex character himself, “Schaffa survived by loving his charges… He truly does love you, never doubt that” (The Stone Sky, 306). Unlike many traditional hero stories, there is no clear evil in Essun’s enemies (arguably even Father Earth), and she herself seems to believe this to an extent in her conversation with Danel.
One of the most impactful moments when I consider Essun’s heroism is within Essun’s final confrontation with Nassun. In these moments, multiple things occur, such as Essun’s decision to use the Guardians as fuel, “somewhere down in Warrant there are Guardians screaming, coming awake and writhing in their cells… You don’t hate them; you just don’t care,” (The Stone Sky, 380). One of the most important decisions Essun makes in all her trials is her decision to give in to Essun, where she gives up in her fight for the world to save her daughter, “You wanted to make a better world for Nassun. But more than anything else, you want this last child of yours to live. To keep fighting will kill you both,” (385).
Yet, felt throughout my own reading that Essun still maintained the role as hero, albeit as a humanly flawed. In one of Jemisin’s blog posts, she speaks about making Essun an unlikeable protagonist, and mentions briefly that “Essun has done terrible things, but is she a terrible person?” Even Essuns most terrible acts, such as the destruction of Tirimo, are done out of grief or fear. “Most of Tirimo will survive this, at least until the wells die. Because of these things, and because of the terrified, bouncing scream of a little boy as his father runs out of a madly swaying building,” (The Fifth Season, 59). Her goals to better the world for her children are earnest, which Nassun realizes after her mother’s death. The world is saved by Nassun indirectly as a result of Essun’s wants. She has genuine and in many ways heroic beliefs, but not above her own human flaws. Even in the final pages of the series, she states “I want the world to be better” (398).
Danel and Essun’s conversation of the lorists tale of a hero takes place at an interesting point within the novel, at one of the most challenging and deadly periods of Essun’s journey. Further, Essun does see Danel before the final confrontation, and wonders about a lorists record “It changes things, somehow, to understand that you go to face a fate that an Equatorial lorist wants to record for posterity. Now it’s not just a caravan. It’s a rusting quest,” (The Stone Sky, 348). It would make sense for Jemisin to add these lines into key moments in the text, to have the reader consider Essun’s role as the hero. I wonder if Jemisin’s intent was to have the reader question who was the hero by the end of the series. (In some ways, I could see an argument for Nassun being a more true protagonist in at least The Stone Sky. )
Flawed heroes have always interested both myself and many others. They make stories more real, characters more relatable and human. In my own efforts to find areas where Essun has failed to meet traditional heroic expectations, I really only found decisions she made that are completely reasonable for the average person given each individual circumstance. In her conversation with Danel, it would make sense in Essun’s eyes to not see herself as a hero in some lorist’s record, as she never truly made an entirely heroic (or villainous) decision. She doesn’t see her own journey as a story worthy of record. Yet, an equally important line within the conversation is Danel’s, where she states “The hero of the story never does,” (The Stone Sky, 222).
I do wonder if others felt similarly about Essun’s role in the series, whether they ever doubted Essun’s actions, or felt all of her decisions were justified. Did anyone else feel that she was a hero, maybe even in a more traditional sense? I am curious to know.