There have been few books in recent memory that have gotten me to think quite as much as N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy. A grand fantasy tale involving its own form of magic in various forms as well as fully fleshed out histories and societies of its own, the series had me gripped from the very start and held my attention for much of its duration. There are several different themes at play throughout the book, themes that inform the decision making and development of many characters in the series. And many of these themes can be traced back to how they relate to the very earth itself, as well as the magic-esk orogeny used to control it. Orogeny is many things in the world of the Stillness, inspiring awe and fear, hate and reverence. But the aspect that I focused on for much of my early readings of the book was the sense of justice that came bundled along with it. What I had focused on originally had been the power dynamic between the orogenes and the stills, those with and without the ability to control the earth respectively. How the expected dynamic between the two groups had been turned on its head as those with these powers were hunted by those who lacked them. And though my thoughts on the world of the Stillness have changed, the many ways justice, or the lack of it, is embodied by the earth and orogeny do much to embody my understanding of the books and their characters.
The focus of the series has to do with orogenes and their interactions with both the earth itself as well as the people that they share the Stillness with. It is these interactions that influence much of what is considered just within the world, and my perception of it has evolved along with the characters’ understanding of it. To start, the relationship between the stills and the orogenes is one where justice is thrown to the wayside. Orogenes are feared and despised by those that lack their power and are hunted simply for existing. Whether or not their fear is based on actual backing or purely superstition does not matter to them, as their fear only adds to their hatred. Several examples of this blind hatred can be seen throughout the books, particularly in the third book, The Stone Sky. At the end of many of the book’s chapters, there will be a historical passage about an instance where an orogene revealed who they truly were through use of their powers, only to be brutally tortured and murdered by the stills they had known before. Many of these orogenes use their powers to help their villages, only for their kindness to be met with hate and violence. While my understanding of the power dynamic between these groups at the start of the series was already clear, the plethora of examples that Jemisin provides the reader only serves to further prove the unjust nature of this hatred; how it stems from a lack of understanding, and how the innocent are more than often slaughtered simply for the crime of existing.
Regarding this sense of justice, there is another relationship worth exploring within the Stillness; that of the relationship between humanity and Father Earth. Within the story, it is revealed that the earth is more than just soil and minerals, but has a consciousness of its own. It is the force that controls the Guardians, as well as the force responsible for all the natural disasters that humanity faces on the surface. Father Earth, as the earth is called by the characters, seeks revenge on humanity for the loss of his child, the Moon. Though the people alive now were in no way responsible for the loss of the Moon, Father Earth continues to barrage the surface with these attacks through the fuel of revenge. And though the consciousness embodying the earth may feel as though these attacks are justified, there is no justice to a natural disaster. A natural disaster is indiscriminate in who it hurts, there can be no targets of the damage that they cause. The earthquakes and tsunamis that the people of the Stillness face care little whether one is a still or an orogene. And this disregard for life is reflected much in the real-world consequences of natural disasters. As me and my group saw when studying the effects of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the loss of life there was in no way just. The people who lost their lives were not killed for any higher purpose. And even beyond the senseless death, the amount of history that was lost through the destruction of art was indiscriminate as well. There is no justice to natural disasters, and whether they are fueled by revenge or not, the death caused by natural disasters can never be justified.
Aside from Father Earth, the other force that takes the movement of the earth into their own hands is the orogenes. And being the ones who get to choose how the earth moves at many times, their own personal sense of what is right and wrong gets put to the test once they set about using their powers towards some sort of goal. A clear example of this can be seen at the very start of the first book, The Fifth Season, when the character Alabaster decides to destroy the city of Yumenes. Alabaster, after having suffered for many years from working under the Fulcrum, finally decides that enough is enough and chooses to destroy the capital city using a fault line. To do so, he uses the orogeny of the many node maintainers to fuel his own, killing them as a result. However, he is successful, and before long the entirety of the Stillness is plunged into a Fifth Season that will last for thousands of years. Alabaster’s actions in this moment are motivated by many different factors, but despite all the death he inflicts upon the world one of his main motives is love. He holds so much love for the node maintainers who have been forced by both the Fulcrum as well as the whole of society to serve as little more than tools, so much so that he would justify killing them as an act of mercy. Though the loss of life in any sense is inherently bad, Alabaster takes the justice of the world into his own hands and chooses who is worthy to live or die, motivated by hate, love, or even a mixture of both at times. It is not his right to decide what is morally correct, and yet through his connection to the earth he is allowed the opportunity to do just that.
Regarding the idea of love and hate interacting through the medium of orogeny, there is no character in Jemisin’s trilogy that embodies this quite like Essun. Essun’s journey across the Stillness is motivated by a multitude of things, constantly changing as more and more information comes to light. Her journey at first is motivated by the desire to kill her former husband for murdering their son, and to save her daughter from him. As the plot progresses, though, and Essun becomes more and more intertwined with the people of Castrima, Essun’s focus later becomes keeping her fellow com members alive, even at the cost of halting her search for her daughter. But even though her direction changes, her motivations are still tied to both love and hatred. Being one of the most powerful orogenes of all time allows her the ability to hold the fate of many people’s lives in her hands, and oftentimes she teeters between wanting to cut all ties or create friendships, such as when she uses the force of her abilities to intimidate the Castrimans to follow her orders. These values of love and hate also define much of her relationships with others, often holding intense feelings of hate towards people like Jija before she later realizes that it is worth more to love those she still has. The worth of each value is sometimes ignored for the other, but Essun always seems to bounce between the two. And as these values are so impactful to Essun as a character, her orogeny is also intertwined with them. Essun proves time and time again that she is willing to cause destruction if it is for the sake of those she loves, or even as a weapon against those she hates. The earth becomes a vessel for her, defending or attacking those who she deems fit to protect or attack. While Alabaster’s sense of justice is explored in his decision to destroy Yumenes, Essun’s morals are put to the test around every corner of the book, all the way to the end where she is faced with the decision of stopping her daughter from destroying the world or fighting to save it. Her journey evolves alongside her abilities, but her connection to these values of love and hatred remain constant throughout her story.
Orogeny is an interesting basis for a story. While supernatural abilities are common in the world of literature, the way that the world of the Stillness has evolved around the presence of this ability and the people who wield it reinforces its importance. But the influence of the earth is revealed by the third book to be so much more than just the materials of orogeny. It comes to represent so much for each of the characters, ranging from morality to revenge to even the simple feeling of love, serving as the connection between characters. The world of The Broken Earth Trilogy is one that is filled with strife. With chaos and injustice, values that can unfortunately be seen reflected in our own world. But after having finished the series, I can say that there is also hope in unlikely places. There are people who try to defy the unfair odds. And there is love, love between people and love through the earth. Jemisin has crafted a world that is not black and white and shows the readers the truth of how things are through a fantastical lens. It was a joy to read the series, and I can only hope that the value of love that she explores can make its way more and more into our world.