TITLE: The Stone Sky (Broken Earth Trilogy #3)
AUTHOR: N.K. Jemisin
GENRE: Fiction, Fantasy
PUBLISHED: August 15, 2017
PURCHASE LINKS: Amazon
MOBILISM LINK: Mobilism
Note: This review is of the third book in a trilogy. It contains no spoilers for the book being reviewed but might contain spoilers for the two previous books. Please do not read this review without having read the first two books.
For a story, no matter its length, to be truly worth the amount of time, energy, and emotion I invest in it, it must have a good ending. I do not expect it to be happy, of course; not all stories can end happily, after all. But whatever that ending might be, happy or heartbreaking, it must at least ring true to the story that came before it. Too happy or too sad, and it will ring false. It must be just right, land in a kind of Goldilocks-zone where it makes sense. This is especially important with long-running series since I invest so much time reading the individual books that the ending has to be worth it.
Fortunately, The Stone Sky, the final book in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, handily meets the above criterion. Set after the events of The Obelisk Gate, it continues the stories of Essun and Nassun as the two of them hurtle towards each other - and their respective destinies. For Essun, it means taking up the task given to her by Alabaster, and using the power of the Obelisk Gate to catch the Moon, stabilise the Stillness, and shape the world into something better: a world where orogenes like her and her children no longer need to suffer from oppression and prejudice.
For Nassun, however, it means something darker. Having experienced firsthand the world’s animosity and wickedness, she has decided that the Stillness is beyond saving and only one thing remains to do: destroy it.
Since this is the last book in a trilogy, I will admit that I had some very high expectations going in. Part of it has to do with Jemisin’s reputation, since she is a highly-lauded SFF writer with the awards list to prove it. The rest of it has to do with the utterly gorgeous - and heart-shattering - nature of this trilogy in particular. The Broken Earth trilogy is by no means an easy read, if only because Jemisin does not shy away from depicting violence and brutality in any way, shape, or form. In the first two books, this violence and brutality are portrayed simply as a fact of the Stillness, that it is the only way to keep on surviving.
But in The Stone Sky, things begin to change. To be fair, changes were already in progress as of The Obelisk Gate, but this is where the reader sees those changes come to fruition. Gradually, characters begin to realise that they do not need to uphold the status quo - that there is something better, though of course how “better” is defined is dependent upon the character in question. For some, it means change. For others, it means apocalypse.
Though really, is there a difference between the two? More often than not, to achieve the first, some variation of the second must occur. In that sense, change - the kind that is true and bone-deep, not the kind that simply happens on the surface - can only occur if some kind of apocalypse happens. In that sense, change and destruction go hand-in-hand: the latter must first happen in order to clear the way for the former. The narrator (revealed as Hoa the stone eater in The Obelisk Gate) says as much in an excerpt very early in the novel:
An apocalypse is a relative thing, isn’t it? When the earth shatters, it is a disaster to the life that depends on it—but nothing much to Father Earth. When a man dies, it should be devastating to a girl who once called him Father, but this becomes as nothing when she has been called monster so many times that she finally embraces the label. When a slave rebels, it is nothing much to the people who read about it later. Just thin words on thinner paper worn finer by the friction of history. (“So you were slaves, so what?” they whisper. Like it’s nothing.) But to the people who live through a slave rebellion, both those who take their dominance for granted until it comes for them in the dark, and those who would see the world burn before enduring one moment longer in “their place”—
… Say nothing to me of innocent bystanders, unearned suffering, heartless vengeance. When a comm builds atop a fault line, do you blame its walls when they inevitably crush the people inside? No; you blame whoever was stupid enough to think they could defy the laws of nature forever. Well, some worlds are built on a fault line of pain, held up by nightmares. Don’t lament when those worlds fall. Rage that they were built in the first place.
This excerpt does a few things narratively and thematically speaking. Narratively speaking, the excerpt lays down the groundwork for revealing the real origin of the Stillness: that it is a world “built on a fault line of pain, held up by nightmares,” and that the Seasons are a result of that world falling apart. This is tied in with Hoa, who is developed into as a key character in his own right. Up until this novel, Hoa has been a narrator and then a friend of Essun’s, and though through his narration the reader gets glimpses of his character and personality, he is not really developed into a character in his own right. It is only in this novel that the reader finally learns his story - a vital tale since it is also the origin story of orogenes, the Stillness, and the system that Essun and Nassun have had to live with their entire lives. His story is woven carefully between Essun and Nassun’s plot lines, enhancing and explaining for the reader why things are the way they are, and what can be done to change the world itself. In many ways, this is his book, just as The Fifth Season was Essun’s, and The Obelisk Gate was Nassun’s.
And speaking of Essun and Nassun, just because Hoa is the key character of The Stone Sky does not mean that they are, themselves, not developed. Essun grows in this novel, yes, but Nassun’s development is key here - as well as the most heartbreaking. The trajectory of Nassun’s character arc is incredibly tragic, more so when the reader remembers that she is only a child. But it is a good reminder to the reader that suffering is not reserved for adults, that children suffer all the time; some come out of it broken, but some come out of it stronger than ever. It has been clear since The Obelisk Gate that the breaking of Nassun would only make her stronger - but the question in The Stone Sky is how she will use that strength, now that she sees the world for what it is.
In terms of themes, The Stone Sky is about the oppression and enslavement of others, and how such ideas are insupportable because nothing that is built on them can stand for long - cannot be allowed to stand for long, not by any right-thinking person. This theme runs through the entire trilogy, but reaches its fullest expression in this novel. When Jemisin talks about slavery and oppression and greed, she does so with elegance, but with a powerful rage and hard-edged rawness that no reader can possibly miss. If he or she misses them, or sees them but does not think them relevant, then the reader has either been living under a rock all this time or is being willfully ignorant. It is practically impossible to miss Jemisin’s point when there are excerpts like the following scattered throughout the novel:
…we will understand that people cannot be possessions. And because we are both and this should not be, a new concept will take shape within us, though we have never heard the word for it… Revolution.
“It isn’t right… It isn’t right that people want me to be bad or strange or evil, but they make me be bad…” … “I just want to be ordinary! But I’m not and - and everybody, a lot of people, all hate me because I’m not ordinary. You’re the only person who doesn’t hate me for…for being what I am. And that’s not right.”
“No, it isn’t…”
But there are none so frightened, or so strange in their fear, as conquerers. They conjure phantoms endlessly, terrified that their victims will someday do back what was done to them - even if, in truth, their victims couldn’t care less about such pettiness and have moved on. Conquerors live in dread of the day when they are shown to be, not superior, but simply lucky.
These ideas are the reason why I am so in love with this series, and why I think everyone else should read it. Just because it is genre fiction does not mean it does not tackle the hard realities of our real, contemporary world - and just because it is genre fiction does not mean that it cannot offer a possible solution to the issue. Because that is what Jemisin does at the end of this novel, and of this series as a whole: an ending that makes this series even more powerful, and even more relevant, than ever.
Overall, The Stone Sky is a magnificent conclusion to the hard, harsh, and epic tale of the Broken Earth trilogy. I was not entirely sure how Jemisin would bring the trilogy to a close, but I am glad that it was done the way it was done in this novel: bittersweet, and oh, so powerful. I am willing to bet that this will net Jemisin her third Hugo Award in a row, as well as cement her reputation as one of the best SFF authors currently writing. I am very much looking forward to what she will write next.