Book Review: The Stone Sky

Book Review: The Stone Sky

I missed posting a review last week because I knew I wanted to review The Stone Sky next. But I've been struggling to find the right words to express how I feel about this book. What follows will inevitably be inadequate, but I'm going to try. I think this book should be taught in schools across America.

Before I unpack that statement, here's my usual synopsis.

Having activated the Obelisk Gate at the end of the last novel, Essun is now turning slowly to stone. She marches north with the remnants of Castrima, biding her time until the moon reaches perigee and she can use the Gate to pull it back into orbit, hopefully appeasing the Evil Earth. Meanwhile, Nassun, still reeling from the aftereffects of killing her father, sets out with Schaffa and Steel in tow to pull the moon into the earth and end everything. Interspersed between these two tales, Hoa at last shares his story of how this world came to be, through a combination of extreme prejudice, oppression and hubris.

Now back to that statement above. 

I've never strongly felt that a book should be taught in schools. With a few notable exceptions, I rarely enjoyed the books I was forced to read in class, and I'm a pretty firm believer that forcing kids to read books they don't enjoy is a quick and easy way to kill a love of reading. I certainly never felt like I learned anything or was impacted in a formative way by the books I had to read.

But this book is quite possibly the most powerful, moving piece of fiction I've ever read. No book has ever driven the impact of systemic oppression home harder for me than this one.

Jemisin is firing on all cylinders here, and her portrayal of how that oppression breaks people down, even at such a young age as Nassun, is nuanced, realistic and utterly heartbreaking. I stopped to re-read sections as I went, not because I was confused, but because I needed to re-read to fully absorb the impact of Jemisin's progressively more powerful words. One page I read five times before I could continue. I cried twice toward the end - once at the climax, once on the last page (and I'm tearing up again now). 

I want to say more about how it affected me, but I honestly don't have the words. I'm rarely speechless, yet here we are. My final thought on this front, before diving into some more specific comments? I think if every child read this book growing up, the world would be a better place.

The three narratives that this book rests on are perfect in every way. Essun's story is the beacon of light, the hope in a broken world. After a horrific journey to this point, Essun finally discovers that it's OK to care again, to "live for" something rather than "live despite." Even as she turns to stone, her humanity deepens. She regrets what the world has turned her into, which drives her to follow Alabaster's plan in the hopes of creating a better one - even if it kills her.

Nassun's tale balances and counters her mother's. She's so upset at what the world has done to her already, at what it's made her do already, that she believes it better to destroy the world than try to change it. Unlike The Obelisk Gate, where I thought she felt too adult, Nassun seems more childlike here, between her emotional dependence on Schaffa and the deadciv strangeness she encounters. Yet that childlike quality does not infantilize her, nor does it render her weak. 

And here we finally get Hoa's tale, told in its counting-down entirety to the moment that triggers the Shattering. While The Broken Earth series has always been about surviving against oppression, with the orogenes struggling to survive in a world that despises them, some of the most powerful moments hit in Hoa's tale as we learn why and how he was created, the truth of his ancestry, the origin of the Guardians, and why the Evil Earth hates orogenes. It paints Hoa in much greater detail and pays off the second person conceit Jemisin has been using throughout the series.

Jemisin also pulls back the curtain on her world's mechanics in Hoa's tale and as Nassun explores the ruins of the deadciv that caused the Shattering. It never feels like too much, but she fills in all the backstory, supplies more of the "science" behind her magic system and establishes all the missing motives we knew were there somewhere. 

And there's never a dull moment. The book races toward its conclusion - after all, the perigee will arrive only a short time after the book begins. The rotating POV format means Jemisin makes every chapter for each POV count, each one stuffed full of importance and weight. She pulls a sizeable cast of characters together in one place at the end for the final confrontation and juggles them deftly, allowing each to play the role needed to bring the story to its devastating conclusion.

At its end, this book is a mother and a daughter's takes on how to end an oppressive system: destroy it entirely or break it down and rebuild. And that decision turns on a mother's love for her daughter and her daughter finally recognizing that love. It's a motif that is far too absent in SFF fiction, and this novel only made me realize how much more I want to see it. 

Masterful. Stunning. Extraordinary. Staggering. Breathtaking. I could keep picking words, but they still won't be enough to express how truly exceptional this book is. Jemisin has already picked up two Hugos for this series; if she doesn't complete the set with The Stone Sky, it will be criminal. If you read nothing else this year, you should read this.

Grade: 10/5, off the charts

Memorable Quotes:

How did it begin? You must understand that fear is at the root of such things. Niespeople looked different, behaved differently, were different-but every group is different from others. Differences alone are never enough to cause problems...But there are none so frightened, or so strange in their fear, as conquerors. They conjure phantoms endlessly, terrified that their victims will someday do back what was done to them-even if, in truth, their victims couldn’t care less about such pettiness and have moved on. Conquerors live in dread of the day when they are shown to be, not superior, but simply lucky.
— The Stone Sky, pg. 210
It became easy for scholars to build reputations and careers around the notion that Niess sessapinae were fundamentally different, somehow-more sensitive, more active, less controlled, less civilized-and that this was the source of their magical peculiarity. This was what made them not the same kind of human as everyone else. Eventually: not as human as everyone else. Finally: not human at all.
— The Stone Sky, pg. 210
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