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This Fantasy Series Will Change Your Mind About Genre Fiction

Culture

N.K. Jemisin’s ‘Broken Earth’ trilogy is fantasy at its finest

"For some crimes, there is no fitting justice—only reparation."

Forget what you think you know about fantasy novels: N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy takes Euro-centric fantasy, with its kings, courts, and dragons, and shakes things up from the inside—not unlike the earthquakes that plague the series’ world. 

Unlike more familiar fantasy series, such as Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, in which a dangerous outside force (see: Voldemort) threatens a society's status quo, in Jemisin’s series, the status quo itself is the villain; it is the true enemy against which an oppressed minority must dedicate their lives to fighting.

The trilogy begins with the novel The Fifth Season, and is set in a single country-continent known as The Stillness. Since the beginning of The Stillness’s recorded history, it has been wracked by its Seasons—catastrophic climate events that act as mini apocalypses, destroying society when they strike every few hundred years. 

This has created a society of what are essentially doomsday preppers, traumatized from the constant threat of annihilation; within it exists a subclass of people known as orogenes. Orogenes are magicians of sorts, who can control the movements of the “Evil Earth.” Because of this immense power to force the earth’s crust to bend to their will, and thus keep Seasons temporarily at bay, they’re a necessary element of society in The Stillness. But their powers are dangerous. There is the risk of accidents at the hands of the untrained orogenes’ accidents, but there is also the fear of the immense power a trained orogene can wield. As a result of this fear, the orogenes are massively oppressed; they're the victims of genocide within their society, and either slaughtered within their villages, or, if they’re “lucky,” sent to live at a school known as the Fulcrum. There, orogenes are trained, secluded from society, and enslaved by their own people. 

Leading this story are three women: Essun, a middle-aged school teacher and secret orogene, whose story begins when her husband murders their infant son; Syenite, a young Fulcrum-trained orogene struggling to find her way as she discovers the underlying evil around her; and Damaya, a child whose parents cast her out once they discover her orogenic powers. 

As the corrupt core of this society is laid bare, Jemisin’s characters struggle—not always heroically—with a heart-wrenching dilemma: What future does a society built on oppression, enslavement, and brainwashing truly deserve? As the series goes on, any hope for a definite answer, becomes increasingly unclear, and the prospect of the absolute destruction of the “broken earth” as a means of salvation begins to sound more and more reasonable. 

Jemisin is the first black writer to win a Hugo Award (prestigious annual awards for sci-fi and fantasy literature) for best novel—and she's won it twice in a row, for the first two novels of this series, The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate. The third and final book, The Stone Sky, one of the best conclusions to a fantasy series I’ve ever read, has been nominated as well.

More remarkable still is Jemisin’s incredibly dynamic and diverse cast of characters. Nearly all the main characters of the series, and in fact the primary composition of society, are people of color. Syenite is bisexual, her best friend is gay, and another character is trans. These characters are allowed to exist wholly as themselves, and their race, sexuality, or gender identity is merely one of many parts of the whole. Rather than identity, it's their formative trauma that acts as the structure around which each character revolves, and is, ultimately, what each character must learn to overcome. Essun’s pain from the murder of her son, Syenite’s realization that the world she inhabits is inherently evil, and Damaya’s betrayal at the hands of the people she trusts the most—her parents—defines the ways in which these women operate in the world—with literally earth-shattering consequences. 

The Broken Earth books aren’t the sort of fantasy novels you pick up to escape the minutiae of your day. The Stillness is so detailed and different from our own reality and the tropes of typical fantasy novels that the reader can’t rely on familiarity to plow ahead. They’re violent, and heartbreaking, and there were points where I had to stop reading because my love for the characters and terror at their futures was so heightened, I couldn’t take it. But when I turned the last page of The Stone Sky, I was rewarded, not with a happy ending entirely, but with hope. That through a grueling excavation to the rot at the heart of society, we can find something akin to justice. 

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Nail polish is for novices

Fashion label The Blonds is known for its high-intensity looks that you'd only wear if you wanted to stand out (and who doesn't?). For its runway shows, wild press-on nails are the beauty step that can't be missed. So, since the brand has partnered with CND since it was founded, we thought it best to get prepped for the show with Jan Arnold, CND's co-founder.

See why you should take your nail look from a zero to a 10, in the video above.

Credits:
Shot by Charlotte Prager
Edited by Gretta Wilson
Produced by Alexandra Hsie
Production Assistant: Polina Buchak
Featuring Jan Arnold of CND Nails and The Blonds

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FROM THE WORLD WIDE WEB

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

It would've been nice if someone said the word "fat"

Back in November, Rebel Wilson claimed to be the first plus-sized lead in a romantic comedy when she appeared on Ellen to talk about her role in Isn't It Romantic. Wilson was not only wrong, but she was—even if inadvertently—erasing the work of Black plus-size actresses like Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique, both of whom have expansive resumes that include romantic comedies.

Wilson's comment isn't the first example of white women taking up a little too much space in the fat acceptance ethos. It's actually quite common. But there is a reason why women like Wilson—women who are blonde, pretty, successful, and white—get put front and center in calls for body positivity. In the same way that feminism—the movement from which body positivity was born—has often failed to address how gender intersects with other identities like race and class; so, too, has body positivity been championed as a cause for otherwise privileged women. And that's why it's no surprise that Isn't It Romantic, which aspires to be both a spot-on mockery of rom-coms and a celebration of body positivity, is actually a perfect example of how very white both the movie genre and the body positivity movement tend to be.

In the film, Wilson plays Natalie, an architect based in New York, who is single and plus-sized—the archetypal rom-com underdog. Very early on in the movie, she endures the double humiliation of both being hit by a runaway food cart and then accosted by its owner for not stopping it with her "cement truck"-like body. At work, Natalie is similarly disrespected: The office manager hands off troubleshooting tasks to Natalie; another colleague always tasks Natalie to throw out his trash; her assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin) won't stop watching movies (rom-coms, naturally) while in the office; and Natalie is so afraid to present her ideas for more innovative parking garage designs that she isn't even widely known in the firm as an architect, and is treated like an intern.

But is Natalie just a doormat? Or is it that she isn't asking for what she wants? And isn't very nice about not getting it? If Natalie's life is any example, the bar on suffering is set pretty low for white women. In her personal life, Natalie lives alone with her dog, and seems to be pretty well-off, financially; her best friend is actually her slacker assistant, Whitney, and she's close with another coworker, Josh (Adam Devine), who gives Natalie constant emotional support. She's decidedly anti-romantic, having been told by her mother from a young age that there's no such thing as real-life fairy tales; she's level-headed and practical. But also, she's filled with self-loathing. This leads her to be crass, sarcastic, and disconnected from people. And it was this last part that was hard for me. As a fat Black woman who grew up broke, does not have an assistant, and would get fired if I didn't do my job well, it was hard, if not impossible, to root for her.

For Natalie, though, everything changes when she bangs her head while fighting off a mugger. Her mundane life is tinted through rosy rom-com glasses. Suddenly, all the things that sucked about her life are gone, and everything is beautiful and perfect. But was her life so bad before? It didn't really seem to be.

And yet, looking around the theater at the mostly white, female audience, I accepted that my feelings didn't seem to be shared. But that almost seems to be by design; this feels like a movie for a white, female audience. There is only one person of color in the movie who even has a name: It's Isabelle (Priyanka Chopra), who shows up about halfway through the film—after everything has been rom-com filtered—as a yoga ambassador and swimsuit model. But a name is all Isabella has. A supporting character at best, she doesn't have any connection to anyone other than her white boyfriend, and is sketchily drawn. We learn nothing of her familial or ethnic background, and, even when she is shown at her wedding, there is nobody from her family celebrating with her. This huge oversight is particularly bizarre, given that Natalie has already bemoaned the lack of diversity in romantic films.

Another huge oversight? The presence of the word "fat." I don't think I heard it used a single time. Natalie only references her weight indirectly, by commenting on the appearance of straight-sized women; when talking about her own body, the word "fat" is replaced with "girl like me." But by ignoring this aspect of herself, and refusing to address it head-on, Natalie is succumbing to the same fatphobia that shapes her world, whether she identifies it as being a problem or not.

Before her life becomes a rom-com, Natalie feels invisible at work and in the world. Some of this is certainly her fault, but fatphobia is also at play. Fatphobia chips away at the humanity of fat people from different angles. It means that Natalie gets used to being dehumanized; she doesn't expect others to have empathy for her when she's physically hurt, because they don't value her body. And it's no coincidence that Natalie's fantasy world includes a magically bigger apartment with unlimited clothing options, because discrimination against fat people isn't just a matter aesthetics and preferences—it affects everything from our ability to dress ourselves to our ability to make and save money, since there's a price to pay for being fat, even if it's just having to pay more to travel. Just as much as gender and race intersect with fat bodies, so, too, do economics and class.

I knew I could count on a plus-sized white comedian to take down a genre of films that prioritized thin women. But I ventured to see if Wilson could go further than that, and challenge what it means to be white and well-off and fat in the process; it isn't just about taking down rom-coms but about doing so in a way that isn't just a mouthpiece for white feminist values. But, in the end, that isn't what happened. Isn't It Romantic is fine, but it needed to do more than target an audience of girls who are 10 to 30 pounds overweight and still too jolted by the word "fat" to ever apply it to themselves, so they go for acceptable alternatives, like curvy, plus-sized—or thicc, if they're hip. But I'm not afraid to say I'm fat, I'm just disappointed I will be waiting even longer to see a realistic reflection of that experience onscreen.

Isn't It Romantic is in theaters now.