The Stone Sky, by N.K. Jemisin

Paul StJohn Mackintosh

The Stone Sky, third in N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth series, comes hard on the heels of her second Hugo Award for the trilogy’s second volume, The Obelisk Gate. This is definitely not a standalone volume, though: you absolutely need to have read the first two books of The Broken Earth series to know what’s going on. All the same, it fairly zips along, with fewer words spent on explication – even though Jemisin is an expert world-builder. This means there are few of the quieter, reflective passages that allowed readers to get the measure of Jemisin’s imagined post-multiple-apocalyptic world and society: events push towards a grand finale. Massively grand. In the process, the backstory behind the whole narrative comes fully into focus for the first time, raising the stakes by more than a few orders of magnitude. That also gives The Stone Sky an uncommon quality in multi-volume fantasy cycles these days: Un-put-down-ability. I finished it in a couple of days.

The interplay of different time-periods is also less part of the structure here than in the first two volumes, and most of the action takes place concurrently. The main deep dives into the past are back to the fascinating culture that preceded, and created, the Broken Earth, through the memories of one if its creations, a Stone Eater, animated statue and mysterious near-occult force. This also, incidentally, knits together and explains the three narrative voices – third person, second person, first person – that have run through the trilogy. Jemisin has not been behindhand in some serious high-level architecture in the trilogy’s composition, although she has declared herself no advocate for foreshadowing, and “a linear thinker in a lot of ways.” And her ear for dialogue and verbal characterization, so very far from Tolkienesque fustian, is one of the book’s pleasures. And there’s the same stony, austere, gritty texture that has run through the entire series.

Jemisin has spoken more than once about the ramified origins of the trilogy, and the personal experiences and judgments woven into it. There are more than enough warnings and diagnoses of the insatiable and destructive appetites of an exploitative society, of its endless self-perpetuating cycles of discrimination and oppression, scattered throughout this series to make it a powerful parable, bordering on allegory – unless I’m literally reading too much into it. That Jemisin has taken the deck of racial phenotypes and thrown it up in the air doesn’t make any difference at all. But it’s also shorn of shallow didacticism or point-scoring, full of character and interaction, and simply a cracking, crackling read.

Jemisin has already put out some pointers about what she will be moving on to after this – pointers which have attracted some bitter and even frankly racist abuse when she announced her intention to “mess with the Lovecraft legacy.” Her planned New York cycle bids fair to be very different – which might be just as well. The Broken Earth trilogy may stand as Jemisin’s masterpiece, because she is going to have to work very very hard to produce anything else as good.

From the Book:

You’re turning to stone. Just your right arm, for now. Could be worse. Will be worse, the next time you open the Gate, or even the next time you wield enough of that strange silvery not-orogeny, which Alabaster called magic. You don’t have a choice, though. You’ve got a job to do, courtesy of Alabaster and the nebulous faction of stone eaters who’ve been quietly trying to end the ancient war between life and Father Earth. The job you have to do is the easier of the two, you think. Just catch the Moon.

There are none so frightened, or so strange in their fear, as conquerors. 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.

“Nassun!”you blurt, because it’s her.

The girl framed by the doorway is taller than you remember by several inches. Her hair is longer now, braided back in two plaits that fall behind her shoulders. You barely recognize her. She stops short at the sight of you, a faint wrinkle of confusion between her brows, and you realize she’s having trouble recognizing you, too. Then realization comes, and she stares as if you are the last thing in the world she expected to see. Because you are.

“Hi, Mama,” Nassun says.

Published by Orbit, 464 pp, paperback and ebook

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