Matador Review

A Quarterly Missive of Alternative Concern

the stone sky by n.k. jemisin

reviewed by jim hepplewhite


The night I completed The Stone Sky (admittedly I didn't read the appendices) and before I drifted to sleep, I told my partner The Stone Sky was real fuckin' good.

Weeks later, I'm awake and I stand by that statement.

"Everybody thinks orogenes are so scary and powerful and they are. Nassun is pretty sure she could wipe out the Antarctics if she really wanted, though she would probably need the sapphire to do without dying. But despite all her power, she's still just a little girl. She has to eat and sleep like every little girl, among people if she hopes to keep eating and sleeping. People need other people to live. And if she has to fight to live, against every person in every comm? Against every song and imperial law and stonelore itself? Against a father who could not reconcile daughter with rogga? Against her own despair when she contemplates the gargantuan task of simply trying to be happy?"

The Stone Sky concludes N.K. Jemisin's The Broken Earth trilogy, a post-apocalyptic fantasy series. The world goes through cycles of apocalypses, where society grows just tall enough to be cut by the blade of lawnmower that is the next apocalypse. The world, of course, blames the same magic users who helped usher in the society they benefit from. The mages (called orogenes) can't be controlled except through exceptional means, and one of the turning points in the The Fifth Season (the series' first book) is discovering the corpse of a magical child is hooked up to a machine A Clockwork Orange style to keep the radiating powers of loose roggas (bigoted slang for magic users) from setting off earthquakes in their sleep.

For a non-magical individual, it's dark, and for those orogenes it's somehow worse.  As an orogene, survival means you hide your power until your community discovers and kills you, or run from a community, or get sent to an academy called the Fulcrum where there's pretty good odds they just trepan you. Presuming you then dodge that, you get to enjoy a life where you are distrusted, feared and hated.

It should not surprise anyone that The Broken Earth trilogy's major characters are almost all not white, set far, far away from the traditional desiccated, ruined Americana of most post-apocalyptic settings. The problem of orogenes setting off earthquakes in their sleep is solved, in book two, by just living with other orogenes who help absorb the shock. The metaphor is obvious: If you want black violence to drop, it helps to treat them like human beings and stop fucking killing them. The white mage killers dispatched by the Fulcrum are the police and you can guess the rest.

If the criticism is that it's too on the nose, I reply: 

1. Sure, but it's effective for the story and that's the important bit.
2. Science fiction and fantasy has stone cold classics that are no less obvious in their parallels than Ms. Jemisin, so she's due the same amount of slack as the Hall Of Famers.
3. Life, occasionally, is on the nose.

In The Stone Sky, Ms. Jemisin executes a number of fantastic settings, marvelously detailed. Coming across the implausibly preserved splendor of a bygone age was another highlight that made the world feel less barren.

The Stone Sky centers around abuse and exploitation. Ms. Jemisin writes a number of gruesome scenes with a steel-eyed resolve, where an off-hand reference to a briar patch in The Fifth Season is revealed as a something like a benign hell or a grotesque coma. Ms. Jemisin pulls back the curtain on the previous societies before the current one, and it reveals a Russian nesting doll of one society exploiting another for as long as it can get away with it.

It also centers on age and dying. Not death. Dying. In popular imagination, fantasy novels feature old white wizards dying valiantly slinging spells or fading away into a twinkle of light just long enough for a final wink or grin. In The Stone Sky, death is laborious and slow. Limbs fall off or calcify, but the people continue moving. That undercurrent or steady pulse of pain makes reading The Stone Sky feel like a revelation. I imagine Ms. Jemisin's experience caring for her mother as she died helped inform this portion of the book, to put it mildly.

There's a mage killer who shepherds Nassun, a daughter that isn't his, to as much safety as he can muster, despite the parasite in his brain telling him otherwise. Essun, a mother and the series' lead character, wakes up to a dead arm and loses more of her body the more magical strain she puts on it. Almost every character bears a legacy of pain. It's the concluding book in a trilogy and from the jump, almost every character could use a week's worth of sleep.

Author N.K. Jemisin.

Author N.K. Jemisin.

The Stone Sky is brutal, as a matter of fact:

"I have decided that I am in love, but love is a painful hotspot roil beneath the surface of me in a place where once there was stability, and I do not like it. Once, after all, I believed I was the finest tool ever created by a great civilization. Now, I have learned that I am a mistake cobbled together by paranoid thieves who were terrified of their own mediocrity. I don't know how to feel, except reckless."

Ms. Jemisin set up the cataclysmic finale of the reunion of mother and daughter, on different sides of whether or not to destroy the world and in The Stone Sky, she sticks the landing. It's pure Final Fantasy in spectacle, but anchored by the estrangement and reunion of mother and daughter. From a construction perspective, Ms. Jemisin incorporates three narrative voices (first, second, and third) in the book and keeps the story moving. I haven't read a book that tried that since Jeff VanderMeer's Veniss Underground, and I think Ms. Jemisin used it better than Mr. VanderMeer did, and I say that as a man with 10 VanderMeer books on my shelf.

Her second person feels more intimate and direct than her first person, though that might be because it's an effective use of a perspective I haven't read in a while. Regardless, she thought of it and committed to it, and her execution of her choice drew me in and kept my attention, its thumbnails digging into my throat.

Essun enjoys and loves multiple male lovers, even *gasp* as a forty year old woman. I think Ms. Jemisin kills off one of Essun's lovers in each book, and while that's probably a commentary on the trope of killing the female character in order to fuel the male hero’s rage, I’d have to ask to be sure.

I politely overlook the series' belief that a vegetarian diet through a lifetime of apocalypses is impossible, but raising animals for meat-based dishes (yet /another/ drain on dramatically limited resources) is somehow not a problem.

At bottom, The Stone Sky is really fucking good, despite the things I want to pick away at. Like Undertale, there's precedents. No part of The Stone Sky is new, but the way Ms. Jemisin puts the parts together is compelling and unique.

The gossip around The Stone Sky is that it's good enough to give the trilogy a third Hugo win for Best Novel, an honor functionally unheard of in the history of the prestigious fan voted award. Unless I go full Christopher Priest, The Stone Sky easily should make the short list. Whether it wins is up to the fans, and whether anyone in mainstream SF can do better. The trouble is Ms. Jemisin set the bar very high, and it'll be interesting to see who tries to jump and get it. They might be better off trying to skydive.