Father Earth did not always hate life, the lorists say. He hates because he cannot forgive the loss of his only child.
The first book of The Broken Earth series introduced us to the earthquake-prone world of Stillness, plus the orogenes who calm earthquakes, and the Fulcrum Guardians who keep the orogenes in line. It was also where we met the orogene Essun, who lost her childhood family…and then her ties to the Fulcrum, and then her new family, and then another family after that, until all she has left is her dying former lover Alabaster and the impossible task that he’s just dropped in her lap…
…right after he cracked the world in half. As bad as things were in Book 1, in Book 2 they’re about to get much worse.
Spoilers for The Fifth Season to follow.
Anyone who wants some light and fluffy fantasy should probably start running now. This book is grim; fascinatingly, violently, almost decadently grim. The Seasons (periods when a planet-wide disaster is in progress) are times when an entire civilization hunkers down and tries to keep Father Earth from killing them. Layers of rock ash and acid rain means crops will die, so the Comms close their gates and send anyone who isn’t useful out into the wild to starve. Stores of food can’t last forever; the idea of cannibalism goes from “absolutely not!” to “we’ll think about it”. Even plants and animals change, switching over to a survival mode that will let them eat meat and/or make for some truly nasty ways to kill their prey.
Most Comms plan for Seasons to last a few years, or in rare cases a few decades. At the start of The Obelisk Gate everyone’s starting to learn that this Season will last ten thousand years.
Essun is the same bitter, fallible, brutally talented survivor we saw in the last book. Joining the underground comm of Castrima (inside a city-sized geode, with buildings carved out of giant crystals)(where normal humans live side by side with orogenes without killing them) hasn’t mellowed her out. And neither has meeting up with Alabaster again, although you’ll remember that even though they formed an unbreakable bond of love and sympathy, the two of them never liked each other that much.
Alabaster is dying, slowly and inexplicably being turned to rock and then eaten – with his permission – by one of the living-statues known as Rock Eaters, the same type of creature who took the form of a human boy and followed Essun around for most of the first book. And now Essun has to try to learn what Alabaster is teaching her (in his own brilliant, impatient, and sometimes unhelpful way) about a new way to use orogeny, and his mad plan concerning something called a “moon,” which no one has ever heard of.
It’s a lot to take in. And Essun still doesn’t know what happened after her husband Jija beat their infant son to death and then ran away with their ten-year-old daughter Nassun.
About a third of the book is told from Nassun’s point of view. Nassun has a…let’s say strained relationship with her mother (who only had Fulcrum training to fall back on when teaching her daughter), and she’s somehow managed to survive a father who murdered his son the instant he found out his children were orogenes. Think about that for a minute, about how it would twist a little girl to have to manipulate someone she still adores just to keep him from killing her. Jija doesn’t realize how dangerous it is to believe he loves his daughter while still hating orogenes, but oh boy does he learn.
…Mama is not here, and death is, and her father is the only person left in the world who loves her, even though his love comes wrapped in pain…
And then there’s Schaffa, Essun’s former Guardian. You didn’t think an ocean full of giant rock knives would kill someone like Schaffa that easily, did you? God, what a horrifying character Jemisin’s created with that one. It only takes two sentences to make you wonder how a monster like him could ever have been human. But he was human once, as we see through some tantalizing glimpses of the history of the Guardians, and what it means to be a Guardian, and what the risk is when they go…wrong. Something happened to Schaffa that we still don’t understand; he actually seems to regret what the Fulcrum did to orogenes. It’s tempting to think he’s changed, that he’s sorry. Or that it matters even a little that he’s sorry.
Being the second book in the series, the story has slightly more exposition than action. Jemisin also asks a lot of very uncomfortable scenarios. Is it really okay to take “training” to the point of torture if the person you’re training will die if they don’t get it right? Exactly how far can you push the concept of “this is for your own good” before it stops being, you know, good for anyone? The concept of abuse – racial or familial – gets a good hard look here. Why does anyone think it will work to punish someone for rebelling when it’s been made clear over and over that total obedience will just get them more of the same? And how exactly do you break out of the cycle of abuse if you can see exactly how someone turned out the way they did, but you learn all the wrong lessons from it?
There were also slightly fewer “omigod omigod how bad is this going to get” moments, but I still spent a lot of time either biting my nails waiting for things to go horribly wrong, or stepping away from the book for a breather when things got a little too intense. Jemisin is still branching out the world of Stillness, so we get more fascinating backstory, more crystal-based tech, and more demonstrations of what the characters are capable of, like the short but vicious hand-to-hand battle between Guardians and orogenes, or the almost cinematic scenes where an orogene uses their power to make someone back the heck off. And Jemisin is brilliant at the kind of horror that you never actually see, you can only sense through Essun’s connection with the earth, feeling the shake of feet pounding, doors slamming, panic.
Through the stone of tunnels, you cannot help sessing the vibration of screams.
And there are at least a couple of times when I got that sudden click, that moment of surprise when an author has created a whole world and an entire science to go with it, and then turns the assumptions I’ve made about it upside down.
I’m not sure which novel is going to win the Hugo this year; Cixin Liu’s Death’s End may walk away with the award for best novel, but the fact that The Fifth Season won the Hugo last year says a lot for the series. Of the three nominees I’ve read so far I’ve certainly liked this one the most. And fortunately I only have seven more weeks to wait until the final book comes out.