Book Review: The Stone Sky

The Stone Sky is the third book in N. K. Jemisin’s breathtaking Broken Earth trilogy, and while I’ll do my best to keep them to a minimum there will be some spoilers for book one (The Fifth Season) and book two (The Obelisk Gate). If you haven’t read those books already, you really truly should.

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Essun ended The Obelisk Gate in a coma of sorts, having just saved the Comm of Castrima by destroying Castrima. Her actions may have saved many lives, but they have also made her somewhat unpopular amongst the newly homeless. The ash is still falling, and it’s near-freezing; the sun hasn’t been visible in the sky for almost two years now. It’s a bad time not to have shelter. While this is going on, Nassun and Schaffa are setting out on a mission to end the world all the way, none of this semi-destruction enacted so far. What happens next will depend a lot on who gets ultimate control of the Obelisk Gate at the moment when the Moon is once more within reach.

Jemisin tells some deeply primal stories within the framework of a bewildering fantasy world. The pull of the mother-daughter relationship is the heart of this novel, and the conflicting desires of an older generation to save and preserve and the younger generation to burn it all down and start again. Although Essun and Nassun are largely physically separate, and want dramatically different things, their similarities are more evident in this book than they have been previously. Nassun has just killed her father, Jija, in an act of self-defense. Although clearly troubled by it, she has her mother’s ability to set aside the unpleasant things that she’s had to do to survive in order to focus fully on the next difficult thing to be done.

This book continues to make use of multiple perspectives, once again with different timelines at play. Nassun and Essun each have their own chapters, those ones occurring broadly within the same time frame, and the third perspective is Hoa’s as he describes his life of long, long ago, in the city of Syl Anagist. This, he explains at the very beginning of the book, was a time before the Seasons that render the today of the story so unstable. Syl Anagist was the crown jewel of a very different kind of world, and he burned it to the ground. Once again, N. K. Jemisin sets out the character’s positions quite frankly at the start, and goes on to explain how they got there.

There’s a clear theme of sacrifice running through each of the three perspectives in the story, although it plays out quite differently in each one. Schaffa’s sacrifice is of the martyr’s variety; his determination to support Nassun in her mission causes him constant pain, and he knows that her success will mean his death, because her success will mean everyone’s death. But he feels compelled to help her anyway, through a combination of love and guilt. Essun’s sacrifice is more practical. Each time she seeks to use any of the phenomenal power she’s developed she must give up a part of her body, and while ultimately we sense she’s going to have to exchange her entire self for the kind of power she’s going to need, in the moment it’s a more pragmatic concern than Schaffa deals with.

In the story of Syl Anagist it takes a little longer for the sacrifice to become apparent, and I won’t tell you exactly where it comes up, but when it is finallyrecognised it undoes the society that was built upon it.

There are a hundred smaller, and larger, sacrifices that come up along the way as well. The characters themselves tend not to discuss the sacrifices much, if at all, accepting them as a necessary component of survival in the world as it exists. It’s left to the reader to put it all together, all of the things given up and abandoned to allow existence to continue, and to wonder whether it’s worth it in the end.

This was not an easy series to read. Difficult both because it was frequently complicated with ideas left half-explained, and difficult because the world of this story is harsh and unkind. In the case of the former I can see how this style of storytelling might be a turn-off. I quite enjoyed getting swept up in a story that I didn’t fully understand, but I can also see how it could have felt dissatisfying instead. That’s an issue across all three books, but I did feel like it came up more in this third book, as we encountered the various schemes for the Moon and the Geoarcanity that Hoa described running through Syl Anagist. Sometimes it was difficult to follow what the consequences of an event were expected to be, and whether the consequences that were playing out were better or worse than anticipated, but like I said; that didn’t bother me unduly.

I feel like I’m repeating myself, but I think the world Jemisin has constructed in this trilogy is phenomenal. The characters are compelling and layered, although I didn’t always manage to get invested in the relationships between them, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. Possibly it was a result of the complexity at play; it’s hard to feel overwhelmingly in favour of a relationship when the downsides and drawbacks are so present.

The final book in any series has the unenviable job of ending in a way that satisfies the build-up of all the previous story. Without spoiling anything, I will say that I think the ending of this book fits well with what has come before. It’s complicated—I had to re-read it a couple of times to feel like I had a good sense of what was going on—and definitely bittersweet, but I think it makes a fitting end to what has come before.

The Broken Earth is one of the most intriguing and novel trilogies I’ve had the pleasure of reading, and I can’t recommend it highly enough to science fiction and fantasy readers. Now, I think it’s probably time I go through and read them all again.

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