The 21st-Century Fantasy Trilogy That Changed the Game (Published 2017) (2024)

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By Andrew O’Hehir

The Broken Earth: Book Three
By N.K. Jemisin
445 pp. Orbit. Paper, $16.99.

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, in a world strikingly similar to ours, the literary genre known as epic fantasy was widely perceived as a realm of straight white men, whether as readers or writers — a realm built from the recycled myths and legends of northern Europe that modernity had left behind. Sometimes it was said that these men had wild, unkempt hair, lived in cantankerous tribal groups in caves illumined by a strange blue glow, and favored T-shirts with whimsical sayings or the logos of defunct 1970s rock bands. Possibly such tales have grown exaggerated in the telling. Reader, you be the judge.

This was of course never entirely true. From the beginning, there were many readers who loved the imaginative universes of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien and so many who came after them, but had to fight their way into those worlds past what could at best be called old-fashioned gender stereotypes and willed cultural blindness — and at worst looked like forces much darker than those. (The deeper one goes into the origin stories of the elves and orcs in the “Lord of the Rings” universe, the less pleasant they become.)

Like all good stories in this genre — like N. K. Jemisin’s extraordinary Broken Earth trilogy of slavery, revolution, destruction and redemption, for instance, which concludes with her new novel, “The Stone Sky” — the story of how epic fantasy and the adjacent realm of science fiction were transformed is a long one. It has many pioneers and legendary heroes, including (just for starters) such authors as Ursula K. Le Guin, Anne McCaffrey, Samuel R. Delany and Octavia E. Butler, not to omit those white male writers who have sought to broaden the genre’s cultural palette for reasons of their own. Neil Gaiman and George R. R. Martin come to mind, as does Frank Herbert, originator of the Dune series (inevitably, the “Duniverse”), whose apocalyptic blend of science, magic and planetary or ecological consciousness strikes me as an important precursor to the Broken Earth.

None of that is meant to diminish the impact or importance of Jemisin, an African-American woman who was born in Iowa and now lives in Brooklyn (and who writes the Book Review’s Otherworldly column, about science fiction and fantasy). She burst on the epic fantasy scene with her earlier Inheritance trilogy (completed in 2011) and has pretty well conquered it with the Broken Earth. Last year she became the first black writer to win the Hugo Award for best novel, one of the biggest prizes in the fantasy and science fiction realm, for “The Fifth Season,” first volume in the trilogy. This year, she won it again, for the middle volume, “The Obelisk Gate.” (Both books were also nominated for the Nebula, the other major prize in those genres.)

Jemisin’s ascent has paralleled an often-unsavory culture war in the fantasy and science fiction world around issues of identity and representation and perceived “political correctness,” which all too closely mirrors larger cultural and political disputes one could mention. When it comes to reading Jemisin’s actual books, it’s probably fair to say that such issues both do and do not matter, or perhaps that they matter if you want them to. Her epic yarn of a divided and warring mother and daughter on a tormented, unitary continent called the Stillness — possibly a reverse-Pangaea, deep in our planet’s future — unquestionably subverts or inverts the conventions of old-school fantasy in innumerable ways.


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The 21st-Century Fantasy Trilogy That Changed the Game (Published 2017) (2024)
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