The Stone Sky

N.K. Jemisin

Book cover

It’s often said that the second installment of a trilogy is the best (The Empire Strikes Back being a classic example of this). There are good dramatic reasons for this–the second act is usually the place where the protagonists are knocked back on their heels, and this tends to raise the stakes and our engagement. The third installment is often the least popular (see Return of the Jedi), because seeing our heroes triumph is not as exciting as getting to know them (1) or seeing them handle adversity (2). But I’m going to go ahead and say the The Stone Sky is the best volume of the (very good) Broken Earth trilogy. (Note that average Goodreads ratings seem to support my conclusion at this time, but I believe this is probably more a selection effect–people who continue to the third book, especially those who read it shortly after it is published, are those who like the series in general, while people who aren’t into it will rate earlier books but not make it all the way to the end. This latter view is supported by the declining number of reviews of each.)

Like the earlier volumes, SS follows multiple stories in parallel. In TFS (1), we followed Essun, Syenite, and Damaya. In TOG (2), we followed Essun and Nassun. In TSS (3), we continue following Essun and Nassun, and we also begin following Houwha (Hoa) in Syl Anagist. TSS is sort of a partial prequel to the other works, in that the Syl Anagist storyline happens thousands of years before the other two (which are contemporaneous with each other). Throughout the trilogy, I was very curious about the nature and origin of the stone eaters. The Syl Anagist storyline pays it off, in what I found to be a very satisfying way. So many things are fascinating mostly because they are mysterious (Boba Fett), but I found the SE’s to be even more interesting after learning their backstory, which as collateral effects pays off the origin of the orogenes and of the Guardians.

The city/setting of Syl Anagist itself is also extremely interesting and a morality tale on its own. It is a “solarpunk” or “biopunk” setting that, when first introduced, seems to be an idealized vision of where humanity might go to solve climate change and depletion of biodiversity. The buildings are organically grown out of wood-like substances, waste is recycled in biological loops, etc. It’s pretty awesome. But as we get to know it, a darker side of this vision emerges, and it’s not simply that “things aren’t as they appear on the surface.” Things actually are more or less as they appear on the surface, but Jemisin gradually spins out the implications of a society that depends on the instrumental redirection of life forces.

I can’t say too much more without being spoilery. I will say that the second-person narration of the Essun chapters (a feature since volume 1) is completely paid off in this volume, in a way that I found very satisfying (despite the fact that it basically annoyed me throughout the trilogy). My only real complaint was the very literal personification of the Earth, which stretched my suspension of disbelief and didn’t seem totally necessary.

Shortly after finishing this book, I was lucky enough to see Jemisin on a panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival. I actually thought the panel was disappointing, through no fault of Jemisin’s (poorly moderated, too many participants). But it raised a question in my mind, which I will leave here for your rumination. The panel was about social justice themes in sci-fi and fantasy. Most of the other authors on the panel were clearly in the sci-fi camp; Jemisin is more of a crossover, but ultimately I would call the Broken Earth fantasy because it does not clearly correspond to a futuristic vision of earth. (It can still be fantasy if it doesn’t look like medieval Europe!) But it got me thinking about the value of these two genres individually in spreading ideas of liberation, openness, and equality. On the one hand, sci fi may be more effective, because it can draw out implications by extrapolating trends in today’s society, and thus provide critical commentary on those aspects of society. But on the flip side, sci fi may be more likely to provoke a defensive or skeptical reaction from readers who are not already on board, in the sense of “it’s unrealistic that trend X would actually play out this way.” (I observed this latter argument quite a bit in discussions of the Handmaid’s Tale series.) On the other hand, a fantasy setting lets Jemisin play with and subvert many ideas (gender and sexuality, race, class, industrialism) without drawing any explicit lines to our own world. This might make it a bit easier to fail to make the connections, but it also probably is a more effective vector for getting more people to see things from alternate perspectives because of not provoking that same defensive reaction.

Well, you can see why I didn’t “ask” this “question” at the panel, because it would have taken too long and is after all not really a question. I can’t really ask if Jemisin considered writing this trilogy as a sci fi series, because it would have been a different book in that case. But I would be curious to know if writers in these genres have views on this issue–the circumstances under which they observe their work opening people’s minds vs. provoking defensive reactions. N.K. Jemisin, Goodreads Author, please feel free to respond in the comments! :)

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars