By: Maria Pawlak for ENGL 468
Back in February of 2022, I reread the first novel in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy, The Fifth Season, after having last read it in March of 2020. The space between initial reading and second reading allowed for personal growth, shift in thought, and shift in culture. The first time I read The Fifth Season, I was a freshman in college who had never heard of COVID-19; the second time, I was a senior who had more than heard of the virus—I had had it myself. Reflection is not just an exercise in self-understanding. As these two rereads demonstrated to me, it is a chance to grow and understand the world around you externally as well as internally. In that vein, the chance to now reflect and reassess the essay I wrote after rereading The Fifth Season last February will demonstrate a great deal of change, especially considering that in the intervening months, I finished the Broken Earth Trilogy in full for the first time. As with anything, seeing the whole picture and not just the first third informs one’s reading, which will be obvious as this blog post continues. Because of that shift in focus, what I once wrote an entire essay about becomes less nuanced and more one-note than I had wanted originally, and I am forced to reexamine the way Jemisin threads power, love, and justice together in a cohesive way. Now, it is clearer to see how love factors into the twin threads of power and justice throughout the trilogy as a whole.
My first essay focused on the challenging way Jemisin used the fantasy-geological concept of “icing” in order to explore themes of justice and power. In The Fifth Season’s world, people with significant power over the earth, called orogenes, have the ability to “ice” individuals, plants, et cetera, through an explosion of energy and power. This “icing” is fatal. In my first reading, I was fascinated—and simultaneously disconcerted—by the way lack of justice forces orogenes into killing without distinction or mercy through icing, especially when compared to the more subtle displays of power of politics as displayed by the Fulcrum, which controls the orogene population. After all, the reader has no more than barely met our main character, Essun, a recently bereaved mother and secret orogene, when she ices her town and threatens both those who had tried to help her and those who tried to hurt her. Jemisin does not let the reader rush past this difficult, complex emotional journey of violence, instead describing it with visceral language like, “The shout dies in his throat as he falls, flash-frozen, the last of his warm breath hissing out through clenched teeth and frosting the round as you steal the heat from it.” It is violent, nuanced, and hard-hitting all at once. Jemisin’s purposeful second-person also plays with blame here, especially in first readings before individuals know the full story. By narrating in second-person, Jemisin forces the reader to participate in the assault, to engage in the violence. With every turn of a page, she calls out “you” again and again, making the actions of her protagonist as close to the reader as possible. In that way, icing especially becomes a study in the way that the lack of justice can manifest in outbursts of non-discriminating, wide-spread violence; revenge and fury that touches everyone in a certain radius, rather than those at fault. And because it is in the second-person, it also calls out the fact that those who stand by and allow injustice, violence, and hurt to go unchecked are as guilty and participatory in injustice as the people at the forefront.
However, as I previously mentioned, it is not until one finishes the trilogy in its entirety that the true nuance of the second-person narration of indiscriminate violence comes to full light. In my first reading, this particular instance of “icing” is a demonstration of when injustice and usurpations of power go unchecked for so long, that what power the oppressed do have explodes in angry, wide-reaching ways. However, the second-person narration of that explosion of power adds a new, love-laced wrinkle. At first, the reader is only vaguely aware of who is narrating—all we know is that a third party narrates, someone who thinks the end of the world is boring and wants to “move on to more interesting things.” We are given a prologue of introduction from this mysterious individual, and then promptly asked to move on and become engrossed in the quick-paced world building of N.K. Jemisin’s trilogy. By the end of the trilogy, though, that narrator is revealed to be Hoa, a practically immortal companion of Essun. Hoa characterizes their relationship as not simply friends or family, but rather “‘…both and more. We are beyond such things.’” Suddenly, the previous thousand-plus pages take on striking new meaning.
Now that we are well-aware that the narrator is not some far-off third-party or someone who wishes ill-will to Essun, but in fact someone dear to her, the moments of nuanced violence in the previous books come with new interpretations. Add to that the fact that the novels become Hoa retelling the entire story of Essun’s life to her after she has lost her memories, and that wrinkle becomes a full-blown tear in the fabric. Someone might have an instinct to say that Hoa’s unencumbered retelling is blunt and hurtful, but I posit the opposite. This is where N.K. Jemisin’s emphasis on love and care enters the power and justice equation. Instead of treating Essun like a child, brushing over the terrible facts of someone’s life, Hoa instead tells Essun of her past violence in poetic yet brutal language. He does not sugarcoat and he does not pretend. And even so, the whole reason he even tells Essun about her past “icing” is because he misses her, he cares about her, and wants to give her the honor of knowing the story of her past life.
In taking the time to painstakingly recount her story to her, Hoa is engaging in an act of love. Through doing so, Jemisin makes two things happen. First, she demonstrates the power of love. Hoa is a being who has existed for centuries, who has made mistakes, and who cares about Essun deeply, going so far as to take the time to recount her life story. Secondly, the fact that he includes instances of injustice and violence in reaction to that injustice demonstrates humanity’s capacity to forgive and to love in a beautiful way. Yes, Essun has made terrible mistakes. She has committed acts of indiscriminate violence to those in her life who both loved her and hurt her. This is almost always because of injustice enacted upon her first, but that does not negate the violence she causes. And yet—Hoa loves her. He cares for her. His dedication to Essun even after violence and mistakes is Jemisin’s thesis on the power of love in the face of injustice and harm.
Having read the entire trilogy, the reflection necessary to understand Hoa’s true loyalty throughout the entire trilogy is daunting. At first, one is simply taken by the plot-twist. But in careful rumination, the distinct significance N.K. Jemisin gives to forgiveness and love by having Hoa narrate the trilogy becomes unmistakable. He does not falter from Essun’s side, even as he recounts horrific instances of power or abuse. He knows that much of it was a reaction to a world that treated Essun and those like her with incredible cruelty—the lack of black-and-white throughout the trilogy only strengthens the power of love. When you are left without certainty or justice, what remains? Through Hoa, I believe that Jemisin is proposing an answer: love. Love remains, through loyalty, understanding, and forgiveness.
Essun’s introductory “icing” challenges the reader to care for and relate to the injustice of her world despite her reaction to that injustice being indiscriminate killing. That is true. But it is also true that once you have finished the entire trilogy, the revealed depth of the narration adds love and loyalty to the mix. The fact that Hoa remains at Essun’s side after death, violence, disagreement, and the end of the entire world is proof enough of love. Forgiveness abounds; second-chances are offered. By the end of the novel, Essun is no longer who she once was. She becomes a stone-eater, like Hoa. This is a result of the power she used—clearly, there are still consequences for one’s actions amid the second chances. But that does not countermand the second chance itself. Icing might have introduced both Essun and her power in a violent, deadly manner. But it is the manner in which that violence was narrated, the steadfastness of Hoa’s recounting, that proves the faithful power of love throughout N.K. Jemisin’s trilogy. Yes, there was rampant injustice and indiscriminate use of power. But Hoa’s love, the loyalty and forgiveness he extended, is indisputable.