Thursday, May 20, 2021


I'm still really enjoying the Broken Earth trilogy, and have just finished the second volume, The Obelisk Gate. N. K. Jemisin gives a funny shout-out to "multi-volumers" in the Acknowledgements, and I can see why: tackling a huge story is a really daunting challenge, and each individual book needs to provide some satisfaction on its own while also fitting into the bigger whole, continuing existing plot threads and planting seeds for the upcoming stories. I am encouraged to know that there are only three volumes, having been burned more than once by epic series that petered out.


The Broken Earth is probably classified as genre fiction, but straddles the line with literature, thanks to the really excellent writing and some interesting techniques. The second volume isn't just a continuation of the first's style and structure, which is good: after learning about the secret behind the three storylines of The Fifth Season, it wouldn't be nearly as impactful to continue that structure here or do the same thing again. Instead, we switch to a new format: one story, told in the second person, following Essun after she arrived in the Castrima geode; and the other, told in the third person, follows Nassun from the events in Tirimo onward. Each section ends with a brief quote from the Stillness's history, and they are occasionally separated by Interludes of a few pages from a first-person narrator.

I'm generally not a huge fan of second-person narration in novels. It can be a fun technique in short stories, but I tend to find it grating to follow over hundreds of pages. The Obelisk Gate was the first time I really dug it. Only one of the storylines uses the second person, which probably helps; but more importantly, we eventually learn that there is a reason for using the second person, which is awesome. In all other cases I can think of that had second-person narration, they always came from omniscient and anonymous narrators. In this book, though, we eventually learn who is telling it, which is really cool.


So, a lot of lore bombs drop in this book! An early one caused me to completely rethink the whole series. I've been thinking of The Broken Earth as a post-apocalyptic sci-fi dystopia; as I mused earlier, I was curious whether it was our Earth many millennia from now, or some other planet in the universe, and tended to believe the former. A few chapters into The Obelisk Gate, though, a specific word is uttered for the first time in the series: "magic". Just like that, my view of the world flipped upside down, and I started processing it as a fantasy novel instead of a sci-fi one.

Once you start thinking of it that way, stuff makes a lot of sense. After all, this is a low-tech world, with feudal characteristics, various races and fantastic creatures, and powerful individuals who can channel unseen forces to wreak destruction or creation upon the world. That sounds like a fantasy world to me!

As soon as "magic" is introduced to a possibly sci-fi setting, I of course think of the famous Asimov saw about sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic. Given that, I think it's very interesting that the book pointedly does distinguish them: we are told over and over again the orogeny and magic are two different things. They come from different sources; magic appears to come from organic life-force, while orogeny comes from inorganic matter and heat. The same people can use both of them, but they are different disciplines.

This distinction, like several other things, made me think of the Wheel of Time series. One thing I liked about those books was how they dove into the mechanics of how magic worked: the difference between Saidin and Saidar, weaving, channeling, all that stuff. The Broken Earth is (thankfully!) not as intricate as WoT, but I appreciate how it doesn't just say "Magic!" and instead shows how it feels to work with magic.

I still can't help speculating about what will happen in the third book, even after being spectacularly wrong in my predictions after the first. No, the Moon didn't crash into the Earth to cause the Seasons: quite the opposite, in fact. Something (or someone, perhaps the precursor civilization) dislodged it from its tight orbit around the Earth, sending it on a super-long elliptical path. And no, the Stone Eaters aren't Mooninites, or aliens: they are people. If The Broken Earth is set in the future, then the Stone Eaters are us, people in our civilization who lived for millennia after the Shattering.

Still: It seems very likely that Essun and Nassun will reunite in the third book. The story seems to be building them up to a grand confrontation, which, after seeing Nassun's childhood memories, seems to be pretty well deserved. But, from what I can parse so far, it actually sounds like both Hoa and Steel want the same thing, to activate the Obelisk Gate network and use it to restore the Moon. I wouldn't be shocked if Steel, or even Hoa, were being deceptive, though.

I'm still not totally tracking what the three factions are and who belongs to each. I guess one is maybe Father Earth, a nihilistic rageful compulsion to kill organic life. Then there's the group that wants to restore the Moon and end the Seasons. I guess the third group likes things the way they are? Which seems weird to me, but maybe for some specific people the status quo is better than the status ante.

I'd initially assumed that, like, all the Stone Eaters belonged to the same faction, but by the end it's pretty clear that isn't the case. At the end of the book I'm now wondering if the three factions are all primarily composed of or led by Stone Eaters; it doesn't seem like any regular humans have deep knowledge about what's going on. The Guardians are kind of outliers, though, and seem more likely to be major players.

Speaking of Guardians, Schaffa is a really interesting case. He seems to be getting set up as the major villain, but by the end of the book I wasn't so sure. It's hard to keep track of who is who in his inner war, and to suss out what each side wants. Initially I thought that the thing taking him over was evil, but now I'm curious if it's the Guardians that are evil and if that other force is actually working for good. If so, that would be another cool example of perspective-shifting: the initial possession seems so scary and wrong, but of course that's from a particular point of view of someone who has been trained to prevent it.

Oh! Also, seeing Alabaster apparently become a Stone Eater is really something. That does seem to reinforce the fact that Stone Eaters are really people. It also makes me more curious about the dynamic between Stone Eaters and orogenes. There does seem to be a dynamic where a Stone Eater will "claim" a particular orogene and follow them around. I'm curious if that relationship, uninterrupted, will always end in the creation of a new Stone Eater, or if Alabaster was an exceptional case. Hoa does have a lot to say on this topic but it was a little hard to connect his thoughts.


As you can see, I didn't pause for long before jumping from book one to book two, and I doubt I'll wait too long before moving ahead to the third and final entry! Trilogies do seem like the perfect length for a multi-volumer to target.

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