Jan 14 2020

The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

What’d I miss? The voters of the 2018 Worldcon awarded The Stone Sky the Hugo award for best novel, the first time in the award’s history that any author had won for best novel three years in a row, and also the first time that all three parts of a trilogy had won in that category. (I voted the year before and the year after, but not that year; I’ve read two other of the six finalists from 2018.) Clearly the book is held in high regard by one of its main audiences, one that I am a part of, but, like Doreen, I was not particularly taken by The Stone Sky. So what’d I miss?

The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

Or maybe instead of asking what I missed, it’s better to consider what I did catch from the Broken Earth trilogy. The Fifth Season saw the world sundered, with vast amounts of death and destruction unleashed deliberately, and human civilization plunged into a Season where the other four are out of kilter and survival is the only law. Over the course of the book, readers saw how and some of why a powerful wielder of earth magic chose to kill millions. It is a bleak but compelling book. The Obelisk Gate shows life during the Season, how some people and some communities meet its tests and either pass them or fail them, with life being the usual stakes. Jemisin shows more of how the world came to be as it is, and how some few of the orogenes, the earth magicians, may access power even greater than the craft that ripped the world’s crust apart at the start of the trilogy. At the very end, she introduces the hope that the world does not have to remain as it is, with civilization coming close to collapse every time a Season strikes.

That question lurks over The Stone Sky: Can the world be redeemed? Should it be? In the third volume, Jemisin shows much more of how the Seasons arose, in a frame that makes answering “No” to the second question at least a possibility. As in the first two books of the trilogy, Jemisin divides her tale among viewpoints: Essun, a strong orogene who was trained at the world’s foremost school of earth magic, and who has gone on to gain even more skill and power from other teachers and experience; Nassun, her daughter, who fled south at the start of the Season and who is now also able to access the world-spanning network of obelisks, and who may be able to end the cycle of Seasons entirely; and finally an initially unnamed narrator to takes readers back to the advanced civilization of Syl Anagist. This narrator shows how the world came to its cycles of destruction and presents one side of the argument at the heart of The Stone Sky.

“Say nothing to me of innocent bystanders, heartless vengeance. When a comm builds atop a fault line, do you blame its walls when they inevitably crush the people inside? No; you blame whoever was stupid enough to think they could defy the laws of nature forever. Well, some worlds are built on a fault line of pain, held up by nightmares. Don’t lament when those worlds fall. Rage that they were built doomed in the first place.” (p. 7)

The matter of the book is deep and interesting. The action of the book follows as the community she has joined deals with the fallout from the events at the end of The Obelisk Gate. They are forced to journey in search of a new home, facing the perils of a Season along the way. The action also follows Nassun across the far southern lands of the continent, as she searches for connections to the obelisks, which she will need to end the Seasons’ cycle one way or another.

If a reader were so minded, it would be possible to look at the story of Syl Anagist as either an Eden story or a Babel story. For most of the civilization’s inhabitants, it must have felt like Eden: their needs and most of their desires met by the technology around them, leaving them free to pursue the things that they valued. Human struggle was still present, of course; Jemisin shows competition, emotion and power games among the scientists engaged in the great enterprise that those chapters depict. When civilization comes crashing down, for those who survived it must have felt like expulsion from the Garden. For people who knew more about the basis of Syl Anagist’s power and plenty, it is more of a Babel story. Humanity strove for perfection and built and built until finally they encountered a being far greater than they, one who smote their puny works and reduced the civilization that they in their hubris had erected.

It is also possible to read the story of Syl Anagist as neither of these, but as the story of justice done to smash a system of unspeakable exploitation. The plenty offered by Syl Anagist was created by the unwilling suffering of many people, and when some of them had the power to end that suffering, they struck down the civilization to do so. They become the walls of the narrator’s question.

That choice becomes the crux of the novel’s completion, because, despite the way that the narrator would like to frame the question, crushing millions is a choice. Walls stand or fall as inanimate choiceless objects. Shake their foundations, and they will fall. People, however stony some of them may be in this book, are different. Shake their foundations, and they will keep making choices, they will keep taking actions, they will keep living with the consequences.

Reading along, I found The Stone Sky only occasionally connected to the questions at its core. The end of The Obelisk Gate seemed to me to promise something different, though I do not know exactly what. More interaction with the possible solution? More consequences once it is enacted? More of a struggle to make the thing happen? Possibly, possibly. The Stone Sky seemed to me to be two linear narratives that meet at the end and come to a fairly rapid conclusion, interleaved with a background story that sets the moral stakes. I found the questions — such as the two sketched above or possibly a set of parallels with slavery and the construction of America — more interesting than Essun’s fights on the surface or Nassun’s journey through the underworld. This may also just be how I react to the way Jemisin constructs her larger works. I remember much preferring The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms to the other two books in her Inheritance trilogy.

When I was a Hugo voter, I gave my top vote to her short story “The City Born Great.” The other voters gave the nod to someone else, and preferred her novel to its competition. So maybe I didn’t miss anything in particular, I just saw it from a different point of view. I agree with Doreen, though: stories of Ykka and Tonkee that didn’t try too hard to engage with great questions would be a lot of fun, and might wind up doing something with those questions all the same.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2020/01/14/the-stone-sky-by-n-k-jemisin/

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