The Stone Sky
The Broken Earth #3
by N.K. Jemisin
reviewed by Jon Duelfer
Ah, my love. 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”?
The final installment of N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy is a dazzling end to a journey. The struggle over the fate of the world – waged between three, mysterious factions alluded to in The Obelisk Gate – comes to an end. The Seasons, the Guardians, and much more is explained in satisfying detail.
With the Broken Earth Trilogy, Jemisin has created a masterpiece that will remain in the halls of Science Fiction and Fantasy for a long time. It’s profoundly philosophical, both contemplating existential questions of our environment, as well as representing the power dynamics and struggles that oppressed people face in the modern world. All of this lives within a deeply entertaining and complex fantasy world.
Each book in the series felt like a step in a slightly different direction; they all pursue distinct styles, discuss different philosophical concepts, and follow varying character perspectives. In The Stone Sky, we learn more about Father Earth and his intentions. This, to me, is the strongest part of the entire series and is what binds it together.
While her characters are vivid, the battle scenes are gripping, and the journey is worthy of an epic fantasy, what makes this trilogy stand out is Jemisin’s philosophy of the world. We live in a living, breathing environment, not upon some inanimate object that circles the sun. Just because something is too vast for the human mind to comprehend doesn’t mean that there is not life there.
I don’t mean to downplay Jemisin’s persuasive critiques on society – exemplified through the racial/caste system that permeates the entire story (and was especially strong in the The Fifth Season) – but The Stone Sky turns its focus in a different direction. This is a good thing, because fantasy series can often get repetitive by having to restate the same building blocks of the fantasy world.
Jemisin assumes – and rightly so – that we easily remember the social system in which her characters live and instead wants to show that we live in a hierarchical system on a grander scale, where we subject species (an entirely relative, human classification system) we perceive to be below us and are in turn subjected by whatever forms of life are above us in the hierarchy. It is an epic work.
The Obelisk Gate focused on Essun and her daughter, Nassun, far from one other on separate sides of the Stillness. The Stone Sky picks up this thread, but adds another narration: a voice tells the history of the Stillness before the breaking.
This third voice is an orogene – subjugated as a slave – forced to perform an important task for the civilization that oppresses him (similar to the Fulcrum alluded to in the previous books). This civilization is more advanced than the one the Fulcrum ruled in, however, and the orogenes themselves are much more powerful. We then learn that the narrator was the one to cause the breaking of the world.
I will tell you how I opened the Gate, and flung away the Moon, and smiled as I did it.
Essun travels to Rennanis after winning the battle at Castrima, which is left in ruins. Her arm has turned to stone after using the obelisk gate – the same stone that overtook Alabaster’s body. She knows she cannot perform orogeny unless she wishes meet the same fate, so she must rely on the others in the comm.
After using the obelisk gate, Essun remains unconscious for days. Her closest friends in the comm – especially Lerna – carry her unconscious body until she comes to and can fend for herself. The comm makes the journey well, until they get to the desert and it gets tough. The second person narrator that tells Essun’s story alludes to their struggles, but mostly skips over them to get to the main story line.
Was this too fast? Perhaps tragedies should not be summarized so bluntly. I meant to be merciful, not cruel. That you had to live it is the cruelty – but distance, detachment, heals. Sometimes.
Essun knows that she must find Nassun, who has learned how to control the obelisks. Interestingly, Essun’s story is not the focus of the novel until the very end. I appreciated the change of focus, because I felt as though Essun’s character was becoming too predictable as the story went on. Instead, Jemisin focuses the book on Nassun’s experience.
Nassun realizes the potential of the obelisks after killing her father in self-defense. She becomes closer to Schaffa, who defended her from the other infected Guardians. Under the direction of Steele – the Stone Eater that follows Nassun like Hoa follows Essun – Nassun and Schaffa head to the other side of the world: to Corepoint.
Steele has convinced Nassun that she should use the obelisks to send the moon hurtling into the Earth, with the goal of destroying it and ending the suffering of everybody – especially Schaffa, whose implant is causing him more and more pain. Given Nassun’s difficult life, it’s reasonable that she would accept the complete nihilism that Steele offers; her mother left her, her father murdered her brother and tried to kill her, and she is left alone as an outcast orogene in a cruel world.
Schaffa vaguely remembers – from his previous life where he was trying to kill Essun – a transportation system that will take Nassun and him through the Earth’s mantle to Corepoint. But the closer he gets to the center of the Earth, the more his pain increases, and the more Nassun sets her mind to destroy the Earth.
I was initially disappointed to have to learn another character and time-frame for the historical narrative, which turned out to be over a third of the book. Because it was the last of the series, I wanted all the loose ends to be tied off and for it to come to a satisfying conclusion, not to open another thread.
But as the historical narrative progressed, I slowly realized that the back-story was crucial and added a depth to the series that would have been missing without it. Although the narrative could be dry at times, and maybe not the best idea to introduce in the last book of the series, it answers a lot of questions and leads to a satisfying ending.
I felt that The Stone Sky wasn’t as gripping a novel as The Fifth Season or The Obelisk Gate. At times, I felt dragged along – especially during Essun’s journey to Rennanis – and at other times I noticed several “tropes” that stuck out and seemed intended for a movie screen.
All this aside, I believe The Stone Sky was a fantastic conclusion to an epic fantasy series. The first book was the entrance to a deeply complex world, the second was a fast-paced ride of action and magic, and the last was a philosophical novel about humanity’s place in our environment, not to mention a number of twists and plot surprises that tied off the story nicely.
The Broken Earth Trilogy shifted from an almost entirely fantasy series in the first book, to more towards Science Fiction in the last (even though there is a constant reference to “magic”). Regardless of which category it fits in better, Jemisin has written one of the best series I have read in a long time. It will surely be in many of “the best of” lists across the internet for years to come.