Tag Archives: Fantasy

The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

Space 1999, a great (and sometimes not-so-great) British TV show from the 1970’s, created an extraordinary concept in which, due to a nuclear explosion on the Moon’s surface, our lunar neighbour was wrenched out of orbit and flung into the outer regions of our solar system and beyond. This was devastating for the Commander Koenig and the crew of Moonbase Alpha. Over the course of two seasons (the first being the most superior), the Moon encounters black holes and space warps (the science is cagey, but let’s run with it), and all manners of aliens and danger. It was fun while it lasted. The full pilot is available on YouTube and is definitely worth watching. But little is made of the effect of the Moon’s disappearance from Earth’s orbit, and the likely geological impact it would have had on our planet. The Broken Earth trilogy, written by N.K. Jemisin, imagines, to much acclaim, the cataclysmic events that would befall our planet where something to happen to the Moon.

N.K. Jemisin (Image: The Verge)

I’m jumping the gun somewhat here. We don’t learn about the Moon until much later in the trilogy, which consists of The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stolen Sky. On what may or may not be our Earth in the very far future, there is the Stillness: a supercontinent that endures eons long events known as Seasons. These can be volcanic eruptions, massive earthquakes, the kind of natural disasters that have caused extended periods of drought and famine. It’s climate change taken to its extreme, and very much a warning to us in the here and now. Citizens of the Stillness hide out in Comms, only to rebuilt that which was destroyed. Orogenes protect the Stillness: these are humans who possess an uncanny ability to control the ground beneath them, and as we learn later the sky above. Orogenes can literally move mountains, but they are feared and hated despite what they do to help save humanity. They are trained at the Fulcrum, a school that both educates and brutalises orogenes-in-waiting. Not all survive the process, as their teachers, Guardians, run a harsh regime.

(Image: arstechnica.com)

The Fifth Season opens with a woman named Essun who discovers that her husband has murdered their baby son and has now disappeared with their daughter. Using different points of view (third person, first person, and even second person), N.K. beautifully creates a web of narrative intricacy. We read about Damaya, an orogene-in-training, arriving at the Fulcrum; and Syenite who, along with her more experienced handler, Alabaster, is embarking on her first mission. As we find ourselves drawn into these separate narratives, N.K. drops a little twist: they are all the same woman at different points in her life. We work out where each story takes place, and we also have a front row seat to the abuse and oppression orogenes endure. It’s not supposed to be comfortable.

The Obelisk Gate looks upwards. All around the world, hanging in the skies of the Stillness, are huge crystals called Obelisks. Following from the climactic events of the first book, when Syenite draws from power from one such obelisk in order to protect herself and her child, the story shares perspective with Nassun, Essun’s daughter, who believes that she and her people have suffered enough injustice and enslavement and humanity is to blame. It and the Stillness deserve to be torn apart for good. She intends to use her considerable power to bring about the end of all things. Her mother means to find and stop her. Both sides of this apocalytic battle are aided and abetted by the Stone Eaters, beings that can travel through rock itself, and can trace their origin far back to a more advanced society: one that in pursuit of power created the obelisks and knocked the Moon from its orbit.

The Stone Sky brings the trilogy to a close, but in a startling and literally earth-shattering way. The past, present, and future collide when we learn of how and why the obelisks were created, and how the race of slaves created to power the crystals both saved and damned the Earth. In its defence, Mother Earth herself had enough of what humanity was doing to her. We had made Gaia our slave and She rebelled against us. It was what we deserved. Nassun and Essen are on a collision course and the Earth is on the side of the younger woman, who wants to bring the Moon back and crash it onto the surface of the planet. The stakes couldn’t be any higher.

(image: theverge.com)

The Broken Earth Trilogy is science fiction and fantasy seated at the top end of both tables. N.K. creates characters and landscapes that are recognisable and fantastical. Rooted in all three books is the notion of power and what we will do to attain and keep it. In order to have our way, we find it necessary to subjugate and dominate individuals and races. But when the planet we live on decides that it’s time for change and wholesale annihilation, we live on borrowed time. It takes bravery and sacrifice to prevail against such insurmountable odds. N.K. Jemisin is the first Black author to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel with The Fifth Season. She then proceeded to follow up that win with a further two awards in the category with the remaining novels in the trilogy. That in itself should tell you something. If you haven’t read them yet, there is really no excuse not to. The best fiction tells us something about ourselves as a person and as a human being. N.K.’s trilogy not only tells us what would happen if we cared any less about how we live, but gives us a way to heal the world around us. We don’t need superpowers; we just need to care. And act now.

N.K. Jemisin has embarked on a new trilogy, The Great Cities, beginning with the publication this year of The City We Became. Instead of Earth being alive, its cities that are sentient. I look forward to reading this. Also I would advise people to check out her short story collection, How Long ’til Black Future Month. It’s superb.

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen R. Donaldson

Fantasy fiction was never really my thing when I was much younger than I am now. Yes, I read a fair amount of science fiction, and I still do. But while I liked the idea of fantasy, for some reason I could never sit down and read anything in the genre, not even Tolkien. We were given The Hobbit to read in school, but I couldn’t take to it. But a memory that sticks with me many decades later is finding a copy of The Power That Preserves in the house I grew up in. The cover of that book hit me, and the blurb at the back intrigued me, but not enough to read it. It was also book three of a trilogy, and I didn’t see the preceding two books lying around.

Stephen R. Donaldon (Image: Barnes & Noble)

Fast forward ten years or so and I’m working in a local hotel and nightclub. A colleague and close friend at the time was, like me, a voracious reader. But while I was mainlining Robert Ludlum thrillers and other books from the genre, this guy was knees-deep in fantasy fiction. He reintroduced me to Stephen R. Donaldson and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. He did so in such a beguiling way, that I decided to stick my toes in the water.

First published in 1977, Lord Foul’s Bane was an instant success for important reasons. It introduced me to a different kind of hero, and ultimately a different type of Hero’s Quest. Covenant himself is a distinctly unlikeable character, but at the outset our sympathies are with him. He’s a successful writer who contracts leprosy, and finds himself an outcast in society, divorced from his wife Joan, and alienated from his young son Roger. He has plenty of reasons to be bitter and hateful. The only thing he holds onto, apart from his cynicism, is his white gold wedding ring. A chance meeting with a beggar on a rare trip into town results in Covenant being hit by a police car and rendered unconscious. When he comes to, he’s not where he should be. Covenant has found himself in The Land.

(Image: medium.com)

Donaldson’s epic series has been described as The Lord of the Rings for adults. This comparison is unfair on both works, but I see why it’s being made. Covenant isn’t in the Land long before he quickly gets his sense of touch back and his body starts to heal itself from its affliction. The euphoria maddens Covenant to the extent that among the first things he does is rape a young woman who tries to help him. Even now, many years later, this is an incident that haunts me. How can you root for a protagonist who commits such a heinous act? The truth is, you can’t, not really. And what Donaldson does well, in my opinion, is to allow this crime to follow Covenant throughout this book and beyond.

The Land is rich with Earthpower, a kind of energy that permeates within every living thing. The girl who helps Covenant, Lena, applies a muddy compound called hurtloam to his wounds, which heals his body if not his mind. His deformed right hand, as well as the presence of his white gold ring, confirms to Lena that Covenant is the reincarnation of Berek Halfhand, a Lord from eons past who saved the Land from the evil Lord Foul, who has been up to his tricks again despite banishment. Covenant, for his part, refuses to believe any of this is real, and thus nothing he says or does carries any consequence. Far from being the Land’s saviour, he styles himself on his unbelief, giving the trilogy its full name: The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever.

Donaldson readily uses many of not all of the available tropes employed in the genre of classic fantasy fiction. There is the Hero (Covenant), the Quest (destroy once and for all the threat of Lord Foul and his minions), a place of magic (The Land), the totems of power (the white gold ring, the One Tree, the Staff of Law), mythical creatures (Giants, Ranyhyn, Demondim, Elohim, Forestals, etc), and of course romance, which features heavily in later volumes with the introduction of Covenant’s doctor from our world, Linden Avery. But Donaldson subverts our expectations, and challenges us to put aside our preconceptions. As mentioned above, Covenant is not the hero the Land deserves, but it certainly needs him. As each of his companions (another trope that bears mentioning) regale him with stories of their ancestry and past victories and defeats, the object is to convince Covenant enough to help even when he doesn’t believe any of what he’s told. It’s a hard ask, but Donaldson does it in such a way, giving each of his characters distinctive voices and histories, that even if you feel Covenant may not be up to the job, you desperately want someone to step in and save the day and the Land.

(Image: biblio.co.nz)

Donaldson wrote two trilogies between 1977 and 1983, completing the second chronicles with White Gold Wielder. He completed a two book fantasy series, Mordant’s Need, and a five book science fiction epic, The Gap Cycle, which is an extraordinary piece of work. He also found the time to write some crime fiction under the Reed Stephens pseudonym, The Man Who… But in 2004, he published what was to be first of a quadrilogy, The Final Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: The Runes of the Earth. It took me a long time for get to this, but when I found that all four books where in my local library at the time, I borrowed them all and read them through at the end of last year and into the beginning of this one. It helped that before each book begins properly, there is a concise summary of everything that happened before. Maps and a brilliant glossary are also included, both massively helpful because the cast list and place names are plentiful and it’s a complex job following everything.

And this leads me to a very important point I feel I must make. Donaldson’s writing style for these novels in particular is not for everyone. The Land and its citizens are ornate and love their lore and the very nature of storytelling. Donaldson’s use of language is both immersive and off-putting. I found it necessary to put ample time away in order to approach these complex books. Some critics say they’re hard to read, and indeed some passages are long and detailed, so it’s best not to approach these tired or cranky. They are, however, complemented by some stunning actions scenes that take up entire chapters. It’s not just the fate of the characters or the Land that is at stake, it’s the nature of Time and the Universe, too. Lord Foul’s ultimate ambition is to undo Time and bring darkness throughout all existence. The last book of the Chronicles, The Last Dark, is a 550 page race against the clock, and is truly stunning in its resolution. Covenant’s atrocious crime from book one still has a price to exact, one that must be paid in full. The circle must be complete in order for justice to be served. It’s only right.

(Image: amazon.com)

But it is not just about the story; it’s about the Land and all who live in it. Not only are the Giants the real heroes on show here, but the haruchai, a race of warriors that shun magic and weapons but take pride in prowess and stamina, offer the Unbeliever their hard-earned support, and without these and other races, Covenant and Avery would have a chance of defeating Lord Foul. All ten books in the series contain wild magic, victories, defeats, betrayal, death and rebirth; hope where there should be none; love where there really isn’t time; and healing, because that’s what we all need, no matter where we live.

Donaldson continues to write fantasy fiction. He’s two books into another epic saga, The Great God’s War. I’ve read the first one and enjoyed it, but it’s going to take something special to usurp Covenant and the Land from the top of my list.