Look at me, finishing a series within a year! Who even am I?
The Stone Sky is the last book of The Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin. She give us answers to some of the questions from the first two books, as well as closure—of sorts—for most of the main characters. I’m not sure I would call the ending satisfying, but it is certainly thoughtful. This is how I’ve come to regard Jemisin’s storytelling and how it interacts with my sensibilities as a reader: she doesn’t always deliver the type of story I want, but I can appreciate that she is delivering a top-quality story.
Spoilers for the first two books but not this one.
Picking up just a few days after the end of The Obelisk Gate, this book is narrated in the second person. Hoa the Stone Eater tells Essun her own story, beginning with her return to consciousness after successfully using the obelisks at the end of the last book. Essun’s ability to use magic as well as orogeny now means that any such actions will petrify a part of her body. Nevertheless she remains committed to using the Obelisk Gate to recapture the Moon. She also needs to find Nassun—and here Jemisin alternates perspectives, allowing us to follow Nassun’s parallel journey to take control of the Gate and execute a plan, far more destructive, suggested by a rival Stone Eater. Who will make it to the Gate first? And what’s with the interspersed chapters about the ancient city of Syl Anagist?
I’d forgotten how young Nassun is! Only 11 years old! I’m trying to remember what I was like at 11—certainly not that capable. Of course, much of her apparent maturity has been forged in the painful crucible of necessity. Jemisin does a good job of displaying the trauma that weighs on Nassun’s young shoulders, the mistakes in judgment, etc. In a genre littered with youthful chosen ones, Nassun stands out. She has been chosen in the sense that others found her, groomed her, influenced her. Yet she is also broken; she is not serving out a destiny but rather stumbling towards something resembling the resolution of millennia of stagnation.
Both Nassun and Essun’s stories are about family. In the most narrow sense, both protagonists are attempting to find or reform their family: Nassun, having literally killed her biological father, chooses Schaffa as a new father; Essun becomes closer to Lerna even as she searches for a hint of belonging in Castrima. And of course, Essun yearns for reunion with Nassun, even if the latter has no idea her mother is still out there. As the world enters another apocalyptic Season, as the survivors of Castrima march desperately through a desert towards the ruined city of their would-be conquerors, these characters strive for those simplest, most basic connections.
In a broader sense, The Stone Sky questions who we consider family at a species level. Bigotry has been a bedrock of this series from the beginning. As Jemisin fills in some of the gaps about the origin story of orogenes, we understand that this isn’t merely about “roggas versus stills.” This is a rondo of discrimination: throughout thousands of years, humans repeat a pattern of discrimination caused by needing a narrative of difference to justify the subjugation of people who can be exploited. In this way, Jemisin tackles the white supremacy of our society from a high-concept, highly abstract perspective—the parallels are not exact; the correspondences are not one-to-one, but they are present in the themes and variations of these stories.
As I mentioned at the beginning of my review, Jemisin is a writer whose words I have come to respect and admire even if I don’t always enjoy the stories they create. The Broken Earth series has impressed me. And I would say I enjoyed it on some level. The style, particularly the characterization and narration, don’t appeal to me. Yet these are decorations atop a much more compelling and careful story that does have something important to say. Moreover, Jemisin is doing good work elevating and energizing fantasy and science fiction with these stories. I love the diversity of voices and storytelling happening in these genres these days, and The Stone Sky is the end of a series that epitomizes that diversity.