Review: The Stone Sky

N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky, which currently holds the title of My Favourite Book of the Year, is the final novel in her Broken Earth trilogy. Like the final book in every good series, it’s a novel of convergence: set on a planet riven by tectonic activity, in the early years of catastrophic climate change that’s set to wipe out all life, where orogenes (people with the power to control and channel the energies of the earth) are hated and feared at the same time as being vital to human existence, the most powerful orogene in the world (Essun) and her daughter Nassun are heading separately to the ancient and impossible city of Corepoint. They both want to activate the unthinkable power source that is the Obelisk Gate: one wants to save the world by putting an end to disastrous tectonic activity; one wants to destroy it, to wash its sins away in fire and brimstone.

I described the second book in the trilogy, The Obelisk Gate, as “a novel about unfolding, experimenting, building”. There, we learned a lot about orogeny and how it works, and some of the terrible history of the world Essun and Nassun find themselves navigating. Like many middle books, it laid the ground for the endgame, the final climactic battle.

But. It’s a key feature of Jemisin’s world that there is always more: systems behind systems, history piled on top of history, narrative compounding narrative. One of the Broken Earth’s chief concerns is “the lore of the world, all its strange mechanisms and workings and aeons of secrets”; that is, the structures that we cannot see because we live in them so wholly; the invisible stories we tell ourselves about who we are, and, crucially, who other people are. And so, the stories of Essun and Nassun as they prepare to unlock the Obelisk Gate are woven in The Stone Sky with the tale of Syl Anagist: an organic city in the deep, deep past that’s swollen to the size of a continent, swallowing up cultures and nations and identities as it grows. It’s here, well beyond the recorded memory of Essun’s people, that orogeny, and the hatred of orogeny, begins. It begins in fear of the Other (in this case, the Niess, a race smaller and paler and with keener senses than any other in Syl Anagist); and it begins in insatiable greed for energy to run the city.

This constant deepening of the world, the revelation that behind every truth and every secret is another truth and another secret, is I think what makes the Broken Earth trilogy so rewarding. Lately I’ve been trying to embrace complexity, dialogue, nuance, in life as well as in art, because I find it all too easy (and all too comforting) to make snap judgements about people and ideas and works. The Stone Sky, and the trilogy it ends, offers, precisely, complexity. It offers itself for interpretation on a huge variety of axes: we can think about race, gender, queerness, the environment, the instability of narrative and text, trauma, systems theory, late capitalism, motherhood, the nature of genre. And those axes inform each other, dovetail into and against each other, in ways that reflect the almost-unknowable complexity of the real.

I’m well aware of precisely how little this review actually says about the novel in question. That’s a reflection both of the fact that I’ve had far less time to think about it than I would have liked (provided I have scheduled this correctly, I wrote this a week ago, and am now on holiday! in America! land of late capitalism!), and of the fact that The Stone Sky is one of those novels that says everything I want to say about it far more coherently and eloquently than I ever could.

There’s been a lot of hype about the Broken Earth trilogy. For once, and to dip into cliché, this is the real deal. It is gruelling. You’ll want to take breaks and hug the people you love and watch kittens on Youtube periodically. (Perhaps counter-intuitively, it got me through a week of intense travel stress for precisely that reason: “I am stressed, but at least I am not living through the extinction of all life on earth”.) But it’s also important and propulsive and a profound distillation of human emotion, and it gave me the most significant book hangover I’ve had in years.

Oh, and it made me cry in Stansted Airport.

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