The Stone Sky

by N.K. Jemisin

Cover image

Series: The Broken Earth #3
Publisher: Orbit
Copyright: August 2017
ISBN: 0-316-22925-3
Format: Kindle
Pages: 464

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So, this is it: the epic conclusion of the series that began with The Fifth Season. And it is a true conclusion. Jemisin's world is too large and her characters too deep (and too real) to wrap up into a simple package, but there's a finality to this conclusion that makes me think it unlikely Jemisin will write a direct sequel any time soon. (And oh my do you not want to start with this book. This series must be read in order.)

I'm writing this several months after finishing the novel in part because I still find it challenging to put my feelings about this book into words. There are parts of this story I found frustrating and others I found unsatisfying, but each time I dig into those disagreements, I find new layers of story and meaning and I can't see how the book could have gone any other way. The Stone Sky is in many ways profoundly uncomfortable and unsettling, but that's also what makes it so good. Jemisin is tackling problems, emotions, and consequences that are unsettling, that should be unsettling. Triumphant conclusions would be a lie. This story hurt all the way through; it's fitting that the ending did as well. But it's also strangely hopeful, in a way that doesn't take away the pain.

World-building first. This is, thankfully, not the sort of series that leaves one with a host of unanswered questions or a maddeningly opaque background. Jemisin puts all of her cards on the table. We find out exactly how Essun's world was created, what the obelisks are, who the stone eaters are, who the Guardians are, and something even of the origin of orogeny. This is daring after so much intense build-up, and Jemisin deserves considerable credit for an explanation that (at least for me) held together and made sense of much of what had happened without undermining it.

I do have some lingering reservations about the inhuman villain of this series, which I still think is too magically malevolent (and ethically simplistic) for the interwoven complexity of the rest of the world-building. They're just reservations, not full objections, but buried in the structure of the world is an environmental position that's a touch too comfortable, familiar, and absolute, particularly by the standards of the rest of the series.

For the human villains, though, I have neither objections nor reservations. They are all too believable and straightforward, both in the backstory of the deep past and in its reverberations and implications up to Essun's time. There is a moment when the book's narrator is filling in details in the far past, an off-hand comment about how life was sacred to their civilization. And, for me, a moment of sucked-in breath and realization that of course it was. Of course they said life was sacred. It explained so very much, about so very many things: a momentary flash of white-hot rage, piercing the narrative like a needle, knitting it together.

Against that backdrop, the story shifts in this final volume from its primary focus on Essun to a balanced split between Essun and her daughter, continuing a transition that began in The Obelisk Gate. Essun by now is a familiar figure to the reader: exhausted, angry, bitter, suspicious, and nearly numb, but driving herself forward with unrelenting force. Her character development in The Stone Sky comes less from inside herself and more from unexpected connections and empathy she taught herself not to look for. Her part of this story is the more traditional one, the epic fantasy band of crusaders out to save the world, or Essun's daughter, or both.

Essun's daughter's story is... not that, and is where I found both the frustrations and the joy of this conclusion. She doesn't have Essun's hard experience, her perspective on the world, or Essun's battered, broken, reforged, and hardened sense of duty. But she has in many ways a clearer view, for all its limitations. She realizes some things faster than Essun does, and the solutions she reaches for are a critique of the epic fantasy solutions that's all the more vicious for its gentle emotional tone.

This book offers something very rare in fiction: a knife-edge conclusion resting on a binary choice, where as a reader I was, and still am, deeply conflicted about which choice would have been better. Even though by normal epic fantasy standards the correct choice is obvious.

The Stone Sky is, like a lot of epic fantasy, a story about understanding and then saving the world, but that story is told in counterpoint with a biting examination of the nature of the world that's being saved. It's also a story about a mother and a daughter, about raising a child who's strong enough to survive in a deeply unfair and vicious world, and about what it means to succeed in that goal. It's a story about community, and empathy, and love, and about facing the hard edge of loss inside all of those things and asking whether it was worth it, without easy answers.

The previous books in this series were angry in a way that I rarely see in literature. The anger is still there in The Stone Sky, but this book is also sad, in a way that's profound and complicated and focused on celebrating the relationships that matter enough to make us sad. There are other stories that I have enjoyed reading more, but there are very few that I thought were as profound or as unflinching.

Every book in this series won a Hugo award. Every book in this series deserved it. This is a modern masterpiece of epic fantasy that I am quite certain we will still be talking about fifty years from now. It's challenging, powerful, emotional, and painful in a way that you may have to brace yourself to read, but it is entirely worth the effort.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2018-10-22

Last modified and spun 2018-10-23