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The Stone Sky by N.K. JemisinFive stars
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Now this is how you end a trilogy.

N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy has been about so many things. But I suppose the only way to talk about how brilliantly it climaxes, without robbing you of the pleasure of experiencing it yourself, is to say simply that Jemisin not only delivers but overdelivers on reader expectations. And she does it in a way that might make you appreciate how rarely series fiction manages to satisfy so well when it comes time for the final curtain. While I don’t believe that stories necessarily have to tie up all loose ends or answer every unanswered question to be satisfying, The Stone Sky manages to stick a very tricky and almost perfect landing, resolving the trilogy’s key conflicts, clarifying most of its mysteries, and outperforming on a level of sheer emotional and visceral punch whatever you might have been anticipating from its finale.

This is the work of a writer in complete command of her craft. It’s the story of a mother and a daughter, written during the time N.K. Jemisin lost her own mother, and every tremor left by an emotional earthquake of that magnitude has been channeled by Jemisin into the pages of this novel. As she says in her outro, “Where there is pain in this book, it is real pain; where there is anger, it is real anger; where there is love, there is real love.” If the Hugos start handing out rocketships for understatement, I think we have a winner.

I don’t want to drop any spoilers providing too detailed a plot synopsis, so I’ll just say that while The Fifth Season was monumental in scope and The Obelisk Gate was much more intimate and personal, The Stone Sky just shrugs and says, “Why not both?” As you might expect, this volume will bring together Essun and her estranged daughter Nassun, both of whom hold the power to shape the fate of their world, with very different ideas of just how they plan to go through with it. Now recently I read some tweets from Charlie Jane Anders pointing out that epic fantasy storytelling is only truly effective if, as in any great storytelling, the investment in the outcome is deeply personal to the characters and by extension the reader. “The fate of the world” just on its own isn’t that compelling. It’s too abstract, too much at an emotional remove. There must be something that cuts right to the heart of who the protagonist is and what they want most in all the world that will be forever impacted by the story’s outcome. If you wanted an epic fantasy saga that puts this philosophy into practice with gut-wrenching intensity, you couldn’t do much better than The Broken Earth.

The first half of The Stone Sky plays out like a quest novel, with the characters on an odyssey that will eventually lead them to Corepoint, the city on the other side of the world where, forty thousand years before, everything — the incident that created the Stillness and led to the seismic catastrophes of the fifth seasons — began. Essun, her body slowly turning to stone following her opening of the Obelisk Gate, is making her way north in the company of the survivors of Castrima, while Nassun heads the same direction with Schaffa, the Guardian towards whom she has projected all of her need for a parent figure to be attached to.

There is a third storyline, and this one takes us into the deep past, forty thousand years, to the construction of the Obelisk Gate, at that time known as the Plutonic Engine. Our narrator here is the Stone Eater Hoa, whom we meet as a fresh, genetically engineered “tuner,” one of many designed to employ their talents in controlling the Gate.

If the story of Nassun and Essun carries one of the trilogy’s core themes, that of family, Hoa’s story carries the other, an indictment of the notion of a utopian system that can only thrive because the necessity of an oppressed class has been engineered directly into it. It might have been about two-thirds of the way through the book when it struck me that what Jemisin was doing here was engaging with the thought experiment presented by Ursula LeGuin in “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”. It’s perhaps inescapable that any society that builds systems of oppression into the very process that makes its greatest successes possible has started the timer on its self-destruction. The choice Hoa and his fellow tuners make in response to what they learn about Corepoint and the Plutonic Engine is inescapable, because sometimes a great cruelty has to be done to minimize an even greater one.

The people of the Stillness despise the orogenes, because they are both the cause of the land’s greatest dangers and the only solution to those dangers. If only those people knew how much worse everything could be. But how do we even begin to go about healing a broken earth? If we accept that all we want is to make a better world, regardless of our differing opinions of how best to go about that, is it possible at all? The Stone Sky takes us along on the rocky, agonizing journey as these characters — friends, lovers, family, and bitter enemies — try to find their own path to that better world. And where there is love, it is real love. And where there is pain, it is real pain.