N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy is nothing short of incredible. Often fantasy fiction is written of as “genre fiction” which is code for a good story but essentially time-filling, superficial fluff. In other words, blockbuster material but nothing that is going to change the world. That honour is given to dark, moody, emotional dramas and often books that take two or three readings to really nail down. Given that the bulk of literature consumed is genre fiction this dismissive attitude from some writers, readers and critics of literary fiction must be wrong at least some of the time.

Fantasy fiction has come a long way since I was reading the same formulaic plot of teenage magician, dragons, mages, and journeys through deep, dark forests over and over again when I was a teenager. So burned was I by the generic template of fantasy fiction that I stopped reading it entirely for over twenty years. Then my hairdresser (seriously, I get book tips from my hairdresser) put me on to a few incredible authors and I’m back into a full-blown addiction. Science fiction is still my preference, but there are some serious players in the world of fantasy fiction.

N. K. Jemisin is one of them. Unsurprisingly all three books in the Broken Earth Trilogy won the Hugo award, with the final book also winning this year’s Nebula Award and Locus Award for Best Fantasy. These are a series of books that I would call literary fantasy fiction. Why? The prose is superb. The world-building immaculate. The magic system is new, imaginative and explored to its fullest extent. The novels are narrated in third and second person point of view—no mean feat. The protagonist is a middle-aged mother. Whoa. I know. How the *$#% did someone manage to make a middle-aged mother not only the heroine but portray her as tough, with emotional depth, and physically tangible without boring us? (Maybe this touches a nerve).

The strength of Jemisin’s narrative lies precisely in her choice of protagonist. There is no shortage of powerful male characters through which this story could easily have been told, but in choosing a female lead the personal and the political become indistinguishable. Her identity as a mother is inseparable from that of a community member, a “Raga”, or the potential saviour of the world. Jemisin balances the tension between the multifaceted identities of her protagonist in a way that is both heartbreaking and believable. Women, their bodies, their lives, their choices are expressed with nuance and sensitivity and no one identity is prioritised over the other.

These books are ultimately about the myriad of relationships that make up who we are: self, community, familial, maternal, global and environmental.

*N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy:

1: The Fifth Season

2: The Obelisk Gate

3: The Stone Sky

 

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