The Stone Sky: An Earth-shattering finale

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The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin fantasy book reviewsThe Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin fantasy book reviewsThe Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

The climactic conclusion to N.K. Jemisin’s THE BROKEN EARTH trilogy, The Stone Sky (2017), has expectations erupting into the stratosphere since both the previous books, The Fifth Season (2015) and The Obelisk Gate (2016), captured the Hugo Awards for Best SF Novels of 2015 and 2016, and these wins were well deserved. Having just finished it, I think THE BROKEN EARTH trilogy is one of the most intelligent, emotionally-wrenching, and relevant SF epics in the last few decades. So any accolades it gets from fans, reviewers, and fellow authors would be fully justified. If you have not read those books yet, read no further as this review contains some spoilers — instead, go out and read them as soon as you can. I say read, but I listened to the expert audio narration of Robin Miles, whose steady and knowing delivery are so perfectly suited to the characters and second-hand POV structure. She complements the story so well that I consider her a co-creator.

The Stone Sky is the kind of book the illuminates and enriches the story that has come before, and makes you want to go back and read them immediately to immerse yourself in the tale once again and delve further into the subterranean depths and undercurrents that explore the bonds of parent and child, exploitation and abuse of power, and to what lengths people will go to protect their child or fight against such exploitation.

The Stone Sky resumes the story of Essun, seeking her daughter Nassun, who in turn has been kidnapped by Essun’s murderous and intolerant husband. Like her mother, Nassun is a rogga, an untrained orogene who can manipulate the geological and kinetic forces of the earth with devastating effect. For that reason, rogga are viewed as deadly threats by stills (those without such powers) and are frequently killed as soon as they display these abilities or are sent to the Fulcrum where they can be trained and controlled by a strict and cruel regimen of servitude. The alternative is death.

THE BROKEN EARTH by N. K. Jemisin

The story is also about Hoa, the mysterious Stone Eater that has formed a close bond with Essun, even as she battles against her body turning slowly to stone due to the events of the previous book’s finale. In the second book we learned some of the back story of the Stone Eaters and their competing factions, but in The Stone Sky Jemisin reveals in very dense and mind-boggling backstory chapters how the world of the Stillness came into being, how the Yumenes Rifting occurred, and what role the secretive and powerful Guardians and Stone Eaters played in this incredibly complex, harsh and engrossing world.

It will literally make your head spin — I had to listen to Chapter 19 several times to get my head around it, but it was worth the effort. As many other readers have noted, the grim post-apocalyptic fantasy feel of the The Fifth Season starts to shift into dense SF mode in The Obelisk Gate to explain the inner workings of orogeny, the silvery currents of magic that course through the world, and the ominous obelisks that float in the sky. In The Stone Sky, all the references to evil Father Earth and his lost child, the Moon, become clear in unexpected fashion and shed much light on why the world of the Stillness is so beset with earthquakes, choking ashes, flame, and other calamities.

Lastly, the story is about Shaffa, the ruthless yet protective Guardian of Nassun, whose agendas for his young ward set the stage for a climactic, earth-shattering confrontation in the final chapters between Nassun and her mother Essun, a powerful and emotional conflict between parent and child with the fate of the world hanging in the balance. Just as in the previous books, Jemisin is ingenious in how she overlays the emotional struggles of the characters onto the violent geological landscape of the Stillness, which is anything but. This story is a volcanic journey into the depths of human struggle and oppression, but finally soars in its final act. The Stone Sky, and the entire BROKEN EARTH series, is a fantastic experience and well worth a revisit.

~Stuart Starosta


And here’s a conversation between Jana and Marion about this novel:

The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin fantasy book reviewsJana: When last we saw Essun, Hoa, Nassun, and Shaffa in The Obelisk Gate, things were getting a lot worse for what remained of humanity on and below The Stillness, though some glimmers of hope were faintly visible. Essun had just wielded an unimaginable level of power (at horrific cost, evidenced by Alabaster’s slow physical transformation into stone) to protect the citizens of Castrima-under from an incursion by an alliance of raiders, Guardians, and stone eaters from the settlement of Rennanis. A tiny hint toward the series’ unique narrative structure was opened up — Hoa is telling this story to Essun, though why and how and when remained to be seen — and Nassun tapped into levels of power and awareness that were both terrifying and gratifying at the same time.

N.K. Jemisin

Now, in The Stone Sky, the end is very much nigh, and plans that have been in motion for a literally unknown span of time are drawing to a close as the long-lost Moon returns. Essun, hampered by the after-effects of her power usage in Castrima, is forced to vacate the geode city along with the remaining survivors, led by Ykka, in search of somewhere else to build a comm. She still yearns to be reunited with her daughter, but survival is paramount above all other concerns. Hoa travels with Essun, offering scraps of information or assistance when possible. Nassun and Shaffa have left the Fulcrum-lite school at Found Moon under difficult circumstances, guided by another stone eater (whom Nassun calls Steel) who dangles the possibility of the world’s salvation in front of Nassun while hiding the consequences of his solution. Meanwhile, Jemisin includes a startling look at a time that’s both familiar and strange, which eventually lays bare the terrible history of The Stillness, the stone eaters, and the orogenes.

As with The Broken Earth and The Obelisk Gate, Jemisin weaves prescient and incisive commentary on so many subjects among her faultless prose: she covers socio-political issues on both a micro and macro scale, along with environmentalism, gender/identity/race politics, the risks and rewards of basic survival, a cost-benefit analysis of technological advancement and implementation, a wealth of scientific information, impeccable world-building, and so much more in addition to crafting a compelling and compulsively readable plot. If you asked me to pick a favorite element of The Stone Sky or THE BROKEN EARTH as a trilogy, I’d probably give you a few dozen answers (and then at least a few dozen more). The characters are wonderful and heartbreaking, even (and especially) when they act for or against their own interests, and the overall conclusion was totally unexpected and yet the absolute right way for the trilogy to end. If The Stone Sky doesn’t win All The Awards, I will be extremely confused.

The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin fantasy book reviewsMarion: I agree with everything you said, but one thing I do want to call out before we address other things is the sheer power of Jemisin’s imagination and her brilliant writing of the fantastic. In The Obelisk Gate, it was Castrima, the settlement inside a geode, that grabbed me; in The Stone Sky, her descriptions of Syl Anagist, of the underground city within a caldera, of Corepoint itself, brought back a sense of gosh-wow wonder that I don’t think I’ve had since I was a teenager. The physical changes Essun experiences feel plausible and frighteningly real. As we talk about the other aspects of The Stone Sky, I don’t want to lose sight of what a powerful work of imagination this is.

Jana: Oh, absolutely. I agree 100% with you. And Jemisin writes just descriptively enough that you see the fine details clearly and it all reads as so plausible and just on the other side of the mirror, but leaves enough room for you to supply other aspects with your own imagination (even though her imagination is guiding the reader every step of the way).

Marion: One thing that happened to me is that I was genuinely surprised when the resolution reminded me these books were fantasy. Jemisin has played fair right along, calling the manipulation the orogenes can do “magic,” but her geology and seismology were so sound that when the end came up, I blinked because I had been expecting an “earth-science” solution.

Jana: I know what you mean — I wasn’t disappointed in any regard, and Jemisin laid all the groundwork for a fantasy-ending from page one of The Broken Earth, but I definitely was anticipating more of an “earth-science” resolution just because the science had been so strong up to that point.

Marion: I feel like I’m complaining, like, “Waaah, I wanted fantasy and I got science!” and that’s not it. Plainly geology, volcanology and seismology aren’t the only things Jemisin researched to create this series, but the detail enriches the world building. As you said earlier, this is a real world, and real people with real problems, and Jemisin did her homework to make that happens.

And the emotional and spiritual cost of the exploitive system that’s been set up, as it plays out both with Hoa’s story and across the two generations of orogene women, broke my heart.

Jana: Ugh, the exploitation … horrible, just horrible. Completely and depressingly realistic, and yet there’s so much hope and tenacity.

Marion: I said on Twitter that I nearly started crying when I read Jemisin’s acknowledgments at the end of The Stone Sky. It put more weight on the already powerful relationship between Essun and Nassun. The way this story depicts the results of an exploitive system moving from generation to generation is brilliantly done. In contrast, the difference in the way Essun and Nassun view Shaffa was fascinating to me; and that’s also a generational element.

Jana: That insight blew open the entire trilogy, for me, and added even more emotional complexity to what is already a complex and multi-layered relationship. Jemisin did an equally wonderful job of explaining Essun’s mindset and motivations as she did Nassun’s, showing that they’re two different people with quite a lot in common (unsurprisingly). And the generational elements, as you say, with Essun and Nassun’s interactions with Shaffa or the perpetuation of enslavement and control via the Fulcrum and then enforced by Essun upon Nassun outside of the Fulcrum was so well-done and painful.

Marion: Even though this story was Essun’s and Nassun’s primarily, I was pleased that we got Hoa’s story as backstory. Even if it was heartbreaking.

Jana: Hoa’s backstory was incredibly heartbreaking, but necessary in order to understand how these cycles of control had been implemented for countless generations, and why something had to be done in order to shift the balance of power and suffering — and then, much later, other systems of power and dogma have been put in place, and they need to be shaken loose. THE BROKEN EARTH as a series is very much about an individual’s or a society’s determination to survive at all costs, but it’s also about challenging that determination (especially when the society’s survival is based on genocide or systemic oppression) and never letting go of the hope that things can change, they can be better. They have to get better, or what’s the point of fighting?

Marion: We’ve thrown around words like “painful” and “heartbreaking,” and this work has moments that are those things, because it deals with serious themes in a real way. I want to point out it has wit, humor, tenderness, and breathtakingly vivid, original descriptions and passages. I think this series will change how fantasy gets written. You owe it to yourself to read it.

Published August 2017. The shattering conclusion to the post-apocalyptic and highly acclaimed New York Timesbestselling trilogy that began with The Fifth Season, winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2016, and The Obelisk Gate, winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2017. The Moon will soon return. Whether this heralds the destruction of humankind or something worse will depend on two women. Essun has inherited the power of Alabaster Tenring. With it, she hopes to find her daughter Nassun and forge a world in which every orogene child can grow up safe. For Nassun, her mother’s mastery of the Obelisk Gate comes too late. She has seen the evil of the world, and accepted what her mother will not admit: that sometimes what is corrupt cannot be cleansed, only destroyed. THIS IS THE WAY THE WORLD ENDS… FOR THE LAST TIME.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff since March 2015, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he has lived in Tokyo, Japan for the last 13 years with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but recently settled in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are Bradbury, James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, and Philip Pullman.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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4 comments

  1. Sandy Ferber /

    Hmm, sounds like I’ve been missing something…these books sound fantastic! And BTW, welcome back, Stuart!

    • Stuart /

      Yes, Sandy, this series would be worth you departing from your classic SF reading zone. And thanks, glad to be back after a long absence!

  2. clearly I have to quit procrastinating on this series!

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