Love and geology may not be synonymous, but their relationship in N.K. Jemisin’s, The Broken Earth trilogy, is surprisingly solid. The characters in Jemisin’s trilogy lived lives where unpredictability was considered the norm. Because of this less-than-fortunate lifestyle, the love stories that came about were always faced with challenges that were not necessarily solvable. Only the healthiest, wealthiest, and most intelligent could survive during the seasons, and not every family/relationship made this cut. Sacrifices are often non-negotiable and intense, as Essun experienced first-hand many different times. One such sacrifice included suffocating her own child rather than letting him be taken by the Guardians of the Fulcrum. This act also drove a wedge between Essun and her child’s father/her long-time friend, mentor, and lover, Alabaster. Sacrifice is necessary in unpredictable times. Attachment without fear is a luxury few, if any, can afford.
In my original ThinkING Essay, I chose to write about balance. While the topic of balance remains an important part of the trilogy and relates closely to geological concepts, it is not always realistically attainable. Keeping the Earth restrained to create forced equilibrium will ultimately result in retaliation. As the series progressed, ideas and opinions began to shift. The use of aggressive force to keep balance, or in some cases love, will often end up backfiring. Each relationship that Essun experiences has some sort of impact on her, and causes her life to shift in one way or another.
Every character, in this trilogy as well as in reality, has their own story. Motives cannot always be understood, and decisions cannot always be explained without context. Certain things require trust, which is a difficult request to make when the world is constantly changing and falling apart around these characters. The unique romantic relationships that Essun experiences throughout The Broken Earth trilogy are each important to her development in different ways; with the ever-present yet slightly looked-over message of love being one of the only themes that stays consistent throughout the series. Balance, love, power, and justice are all products of life on Earth.
Balance and safety are something that many people crave, and many people take for granted. Essun had spent most of her life lacking both, or having one and not the other. Orogenes are very rarely safe from threats and unprovoked attacks. Additionally, while the Fulcrum did technically offer young Damaya a form of balance, her safety was never guaranteed. In fact, her first introduction to the Fulcrum was Schaffa, the perfect example of what the Fulcrum represents. Polite, direct, and professional outwardly, but cruel, manipulative, and power-hungry inwardly, Schaffa had Damaya wrapped around his finger almost immediately, as he offered what she lacked: a home with others like her. However, to teach her control, Schaffa broke her hand. Love and power go hand in hand, and Schaffa is a character that knew how to play the game. Offer just enough love while instilling just enough fear. Damaya was immediately attached to him, and probably would have been to anyone who treated her halfway humane.
There is a strong possibility that Essun reverted back to her younger self and the way Damaya loved. Syenite branched out and finally allowed herself to feel passion and even a bit of safety and comfort. Yet it was all ripped away from her just as her new life was truly beginning. Essun was stunted by her childhood, and repeated the behaviors of the Fulcrum with her daughter Nassun, which did not necessarily work out any better than it did for Essun. Essun had a traumatic childhood, but she didn’t change much for her own daughter. Many children who experience abuse don’t realize what it was until much later in their lives, and by the time this happened for Essun, Nassun’s image of her was already scarred.
The relationship between Syenite and Alabaster was both tumultuous and beautiful. They were lovers by instruction, and with this assignment understandably brought about feelings of resentment. Forced breeding does not emanate a theme of romantic love, and forced collisions create a reaction that cannot be so easily controlled. Syenite and Alabaster were two of the most powerful orogenes, but with two strong personalities comes stubbornness and conflict. Syen and Alabaster always felt strong emotions towards one another, but these emotions started as negative ones, before slowly turning into love. This love was not strictly romantic, and their relationship always had a deep friendship at its core.
Once they began to trust each other and Syenite started to learn more about the true nature of the Fulcrum, she and Alabaster became a nearly unstoppable duo. Syenite did not ask questions before Alabaster, she simply did what she was told and did it well. Alabaster was a disruptive force in her life, but he also saved her from being a manipulated slave of the Fulcrum for the rest of her life.
Syenite’s time with Innon was the closest she came to a truly balanced life. She could still have Alabaster, one of the only people who really knew her and what she went through, but she could also have a passionate romance with Innon. Innon was the first time that Syenite really let go, and he was also part of her son’s life. While the relationship was short-lived and Innon died like most others in her life, he made a lasting impact on both Syenite and Alabaster that only furthered their intense connection.
Essun’s marriage to Jija was very representative of her craving for normalcy and escape from the chaos and loss in her life. With him she created a new family, became a teacher, and tried to move on. Yet, we cannot always outrun our past, and it will follow until it has been put to rest permanently. Essun could not hide her orogeny forever, especially when it manifested in her children and resulted in Uche’s death at the hands of Jija. Jija’s violent side was something that Essun had not seen before, and it shattered the illusion she had fought to create. She reverted back to her roots, and her decision to kill Jija was quick and solid.
Lerna was a steady presence in Essun’s life. He knew what she was, he was the one who found her after Jija murdered her son, and he provided her comfort in some of the most difficult times of her life. He loved her without an arm and without a breast, and did not show her resentment for the fact that she would not be able to give birth to his child. Lerna and Hoa were some of the most balanced, safe characters in Essun’s life, and also the two she seemed to feel the least passionate about. After Lerna’s sudden death, it took her a moment to even realize he was gone, and then she proceeded to say, “I didn’t even think I loved him.”
Hoa was the safe option for Essun. He was steady and reliable and she would not lose him. He was solid, in more ways than one. Hoa cared for Essun in a way that she was not used to. She was his priority, and he would have done anything to keep her safe. It took Essun a long time to realize this, as years of trauma had not allowed her to imagine a future with someone who could not die and leave her all alone.
Essun spent so much of her life being controlled, that her difficulty with being alone is understandable. The amount of loss and abandonment that she experienced was astronomical. She didn’t realize until she was being asked to make decisions with Ykka that she had choice and free-will in her life. After Schaffa and the Fulcrum, Syenite/Essun jumped from one relationship to the next, looking for comfort and understanding. Essun married Jija after she had lost Alabaster, Innon, and Coru. He was supposed to be her new beginning, but instead ended up killing one of her children and triggering trauma that he could never possibly understand.
Exploitation of both people and the Earth is abundant throughout the trilogy. Nearly everyone has a goal, and for many of the characters this was simply survival. For others, it was domination, power, and control over all. Jemisin states many times throughout the trilogy that the Earth “does not like to be restrained.” Using the Obelisks to fulfill a selfish agenda, and destroying Earth’s people and places in the process is a despicable act that impacted/ended countless lives. Love is arguably the deepest emotion that living beings can experience. Essun had to navigate through surviving life while also finding moments of happiness. She allowed herself to truly let go and love reluctantly, but her moments with Alabaster, Innon, Coru, Ykka, Tonkee, etc. showed her that life did not always have to be completely dark and isolated. Balancing pain and contentment is a difficult act, and the characters of The Broken Earth trilogy passionately represented the struggles of humanity. While a shake in Jemsin’s world results in mass death, the shakes and bumps in everyday life cannot be discounted either. Darkness is different for each individual, but everyone deserves to find a community that will embrace them. As Essun reflects at the end of The Stone Sky, “You keep yours open, though, as the world goes dark and strange. You feel no fear. You are not alone.”