In The Broken Earth trilogy Jemisin tackles the idea of heroism in a very interesting way. For most of the trilogy I did not believe that there was a hero in this story. It seemed like The Stillness was too bleak for such ideas. Then in The Stone Sky, in a conversation between Danel and Essun, one of my favorite exchanges in the series occurred.
“‘I know when I see stories being written though.’
‘I… I don’t know anything about that.’
‘She shrugs. The hero of the story never does’” (Jemison, The Stone Sky, 222).
The outcome of this exchange really took me off guard. I mean, after all the terrible, mostly justified, things we have seen Essun do I had never really thought of her as a hero. Most likely it is because of these terrible things that I think this way. Essun even names the events I’m talking about later on the same page. “You laugh a little, and it’s got an edge. Can’t help thinking of Allia, and Tirimo, and Meov, and Castrima. Heroes don’t summon swarms of nightmare bugs to eat their enemies. Heroes aren’t monsters to their daughters” (Jemisin, The Stone Sky, 222). And she’s right, your typical garden variety hero would not do those type of things. But Jemisin is really not your garden variety author either.
They say never judge a book by its cover, however everyone still does it. When I first encountered this trilogy I half expected a typical young adult series, I say half because I have taken a class with Dr. McCoy before and I know that all is usually not what it seems. And alas I was pleasantly, and sometimes unpleasantly, surprised by this series. Jemisin does not hesitate to show you the darkness in this world she has built. That is a part of why I love her world and this series so much, no one is perfectly morally right. Each character is ethically grey in their own way.
Which is what made the concept of heroism in this world so daunting to me at first. Fictional literary heroes tend to always be in the right, like Harry Potter for instance. Throughout each of the seven books I struggle to think of any unethical thing he may have done. Sure, he may have lied here and there, or maybe done something like tricking Ron into thinking he drank felix felicis, a luck potion, so he’d be more confident at Quidditch. But for Harry the ends always seemed to justify the means, and all is quickly forgotten.
That is not the way things work in the real world, or in the world of The Stillness. Hard choices weigh on the characters, and in Essuns case some weigh on her her entire life. What I love about her is that she is a hero for the real world, she does what needs to be done in order to save her world and those that she loves. And what makes her so distinctively human is the fact that she is haunted by the questionable decisions she has made. Jemisin is certainly not the first author to accomplish this with her characters. But this series is one of the first times I’ve actively noticed it. Her hero is not perfectly good, but she is still a hero.