The Stone Sky
By N.K. Jemisin
Published 15/8/2017 (Orbit)
I’ve been trying to avoid doing reviews of sequel to books I’ve already reviewed, since that usually sees me repeating myself a lot. I gave The Obelisk Gate a brief mention when I finished that, but now that I have completed the series with The Stone Sky, I feel compelled to sing its praises.
The Fifth Season was the book that got me interested in fantasy again. The world of the Stillness was unique, vividly imagined, and cruelly unfair. This is more than mere worldbuilding though, as this massive land and its 40,000 year history play a vital role in everything that happens in this story. The Stillness experiences apocalyptic events so regularly that they are called ‘seasons’, and every aspect of this society is influenced by the need for communities to be able to survive these cataclysms. The magic system of this world consists mostly of a power called orogeny, which affects the earth. Given that most of the seasons are caused by tectonic upheavals of some sort, people with the ability to use orogeny are vital to preventing seasons. Since Orogenes are so necessary, they cannot be allowed a choice in how their powers are used. They must be broken down and made to serve. Those who are not under government control must hide who they really are, because the population at large hates them.
The main characters, the orogene Essun and her daughter Nassun, are shaped almost completely by this world and its prejudices and need to exploit others. The plot at its core is their attempts to fix this broken world, or at least to find a place where they can be happy. This story would not have been as powerful as it was, nor would the characters have been as engaging as they were, if the worldbuilding had been anything less than perfect, and in The Stone Sky the nature and history of this magical Earth really shines through.
Let’s speak more about the prejudice orogenes (and now the Niess) experience in this series. This book has a message to deliver. A message that is sorely needed in today’s world. The Shattered Earth series shows the many ways that prejudice, bias, and oppression operate. This is a series where we see loving parents turn on their children, a whole group of people treated as sub-human, marginalised children turning to desperate measures to protect themselves, a society that has everything they could ever want, but still feels the need to enslave and exploit others for more, and much much more. This is a brutal book, but it is not brutality and tragedy just for cheap shocks. The horrors we see in this series feel real, because they are things that happen way too easily in our world.
Reading about Essun, Nassun, Hoa, and everyone else working through the dangers of this world made for an amazing story. I loved all the characters in these books, and the reason why was because I was deeply invested in their struggles. To change the world, or just give up and end all the suffering. This is a series that packs a strong emotional punch.
It is also very well written. I mentioned in my review of The Fifth Season that Essun’s parts of that book were written in second person, and that in general there is a very strong narrative voice. The Stone Sky has three viewpoint characters, having three different adventures. One story is told in second person, one in third person, and another in first person. It sounds like a mess, but it works so well. Part of the reason is because the way this story is told reflects the characters and their relationships. In The Obelisk Gate, we find out why the narrative voice is so prominent, and in The Stone Sky, we realise why parts of the book are in second person. It is genius the way this book was written. Pure genius.
It’s hard to think of things I didn’t like about this book. I suppose at times the way the magic system worked could have been clearer. I also forgot who Hjarka was when I started reading The Stone Sky. I can find a few nitpicks if I look hard enough, but all in all, this entire series is amazing. The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate both earned their Hugo Awards, and I’m already tipping The Stone Sky for next year. If you haven’t read this series yet, please go out and get it.