If you’ve read the Ballantine Lord of the Rings paperbacks, you may have read the introduction where Tolkien is quoted as saying, “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers.”
And history is exactly what N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy provides. This is a series set in a world with history piled on history—it’s a sort of Vance-ian/Wolfe-ian Old Earth setting, except bleaker, because this is a world where the very nature of the planet works to destroy civilizations, and humanity is barely holding on to survival after repeated cataclysms. And it probably isn’t a spoiler to reveal that the cataclysms aren’t entirely in the past when the first line of the first book is: “Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we?”
And as a history, oh boy does it have some applicability to it. It’s applicable to almost any of the big issues of our day: Climate change, and the possibility that the planet will go on but humanity won’t; nuclear proliferation, and the possibility for humanity to end itself through stupid mischance; terrorism, and the damage that a single motivated person can do to a society; and maybe especially to racial justice, and what kind of justice is possible in a society built at its roots on oppression.
(When discussing that last question in other contexts, Ta-Nehisi Coates has gotten a lot of pushback for lacking “hope” that things might someday get better. In one interview, he noted that any improvement is unlikely to happen in a congenial way: “It’s very easy for me to see myself being contemporary with processes that might make for an equal world, more equality, and maybe the complete abolition of race as a construct, and being horrified by the process, maybe even attacking the process. I think these things don’t tend to happen peacefully.” This quote came to mind a couple of times while reading these books.)
Beyond all that, from a pure craft level, this is amazing work. Jemisin gave herself a task with the degree of difficulty cranked way up: Half of this book is written in second-person present. This could easily come off gimmicky; I think about 95% of the writing I’ve read like that previously has been text adventures. But it works, and it reads so naturally that you often don’t even notice it, except when the book deliberately brings it to your attention. (And to be clear, Jemisin’s not just doing this as a stunt to prove that she could; this is integral to how the story is framed and told… but it’s still not something you’d want to see a lesser writer try.)
The characters are richly drawn and compelling; the plot is complex but absorbing. This is just flat out one of the best series the genre has to offer, a success at every level, and it’s been recognized widely as such, having won the most recent two Best Novel Hugos (and with a decent shot at a third next year, in my opinion). Read it.