The Stone Sky by N K Jemisin

Orbit, 2017, 423 p.

Like The Fifth Season, the first in Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, this last instalment has a three-fold structure. Again, the sections focused on Essun are narrated in the second person, while those featuring her daughter Nassun are, as in The Obelisk Gate, in third person. The third strand here, set in Syl Anagist and counting down from Four to Zero, is a first person historical (in the overall trilogy’s terms) account of how the orogenes, who can manipulate matter and temperature to initiate or quell earth movements, came into existence. The first page of the prologue refers to fossilized insects – “a whole that can only be inferred from fragments” – and is suggestive that this is how we as readers may decode the text of the complete story. Once again though, as in The Fifth Season, this final book’s architecture is a bit of a trick played by the author as it eventually becomes clear exactly who it is who is narrating each strand.
As far as resolution is concerned, the Syl Anagist project to use a Plutonic Engine to exploit the Earth by improving on the talents of a group of people known as the Neiss backfired when the Earth – as a living organism itself – having lost the Moon by the engine’s operation got its own back on its troublesome inhabitants by initiating the seasons. The Moon, with a huge chasm reaching right through it – is now on its orbital return and Essun wants to use the obelisks to recapture it in order to placate the Earth and so end the seasons. Nassun, whose natural orogenic talents far outweigh her mother’s has other ideas. She simply wants to destroy everything.

There is “no need for guards when you can convince people to collaborate in their own internment” would seem to be a comment on slavery (or even patriarchy.) There are too, grace notes such as naming two incidental characters Oegin and Ynegen. I also liked the coinages magestry and biomagestry.

Jemisin pulled off an unlikely hat-trick in securing the Hugo Award for best novel three years in a row for the successive books in The Broken Earth. While the second instalment dipped in quality – perhaps inevitably since it was in effect the middle third of a larger narrative – the narrative dexterity and skill deployed in the first and third books certainly betoken a story telling talent of a high order. Her invented world, while not really bearing scrutiny at the level of actual possibility (it is Science Fiction though, predicated on at least one at present impossible thing – but perhaps more akin to fantasy in the level of its various impossibilities,) has been thought through and as an imaginative response to the lived history of prejudice against slaves and their descendants, all while embedded in a tale which impels the reader on with – among the extravagances – rounded characters who struggle and bicker, love and lose in the most interesting of times, is an impressive achievement.

Pedant’s corner:- “none of us understand” (none of us understands,) “‘The potential for significant gains are why you will go’” (the potential for significant gains is why you will go,) “to not shake her head” (not to shake her head,) force-march (forced-march.) “None of them care.” (None of them cares.) “None of them are angry” (none is angry,) tableaus (tableaux,) “chewed up in its maw” (a maw is a stomach and hence can have no teeth,) “imagine that disaster times two hundred and fifty-six” (imagine that disaster multiplied by two hundred and fifty-six,) “like a child willing the monster under the bed to not exist” (like a child willing the monster under the bed not to exist,) “a low, bone-shaking blat” (context implies blast.)

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