Editor’s note: The Nebula Awards are often described as the Academy Awards of SFF literature. Like the Oscar, the Nebula is voted on by the professional peers of the award nominees—members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. There are seven nominees in the best novel category this year; every two weeks between now and the awards ceremony on May 19, Ceridwen Christensen will be taking a look at each of them, and figuring their odds of taking home the prize.
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N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky is the culmination of a trilogy that has already racked up an impressive tally of awards—but no Nebulas (yet). The previous two books, The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate, were both nominated for the Best Novel Nebula, and both won the Hugo. (The last time successive novels won the Hugo was in the early 1990s, for two books in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, which had the advantage of being later entries in a series that was already popular.)
The Broken Earth tells a story that is positively geologic in its scope and metaphors. It begins with the harsh, personal grief of a mother mourning a murdered child, and jumps back and forth across time and space to show how a singular act of cruelty can ripple out and amplify, until it rends the earth itself. The Fifth Season separates that mourning mother, Essun, and her surviving child, Nassun, both of whom are orogenes—people with the ability to affect the earth on a seismic level. In a world where orogenes are a hated and persecuted minority, Essun hid her strength, and married a “still” (a non-orogenic man) and had two children. When her husband discovers their young son is an orogene (and thus, so was his mother), he kicks the boy to death, then he abducts the older daughter and heads off on a quest to remove her orogenic abilities. Essun, in her anguish, sets off after them.
Then, the end of the world intervenes, quite literally. The world is split asunder, and the landscape is coated in ash.
The titular Fifth Season is an apocalyptic event in a place where such have become a way of life. The continent of the Stillness (where Essun and Nassun live) encounters extinction level events (which they call “Fifth Seasons”) every few hundred years, often enough that the survivors have developed a system of lore to ensure the humanity survives the next. Part of this lore includes the rigid control of orogenes, who are exploited and dispatched like a resource, and well and truly hated for their abilities. Through the events of the previous two books, Essun and Nassun have worked their way through, over, and under the continent of Stillness. Both are working from opposite ends to seal the terrible sundering of the world, but they are at cross purposes. Their personal histories, the lore, and the larger history of orogones all come to bear on this pair in The Stone Sky.
The scope of this novel, never mind this trilogy, is truly breathtaking. All three of the books are stylistic marvels, written in varying voices, including long sections in second person, or a kind of second person where there is a very specific speaker, and a very specific person the speaker is talking to. In The Stone Sky, we get the backstory on the intelligence behind that narrator, who has a history going back thousands of years. (Like I said, the scope is geological.) Essun and Nassun reach their inevitable confrontation; their bond is as intimate as any between parent and child, but it may yet buckle, borne down upon by all the ugly strata of history.
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Why it will win:
First, a confession: I am a screaming fangirl for this trilogy. I was actively angry after I finished reading an advanced copy of The Fifth Season years ago, because getting it months early meant I had to wait that much longer for The Obelisk Gate. But then I wasn’t angry at all, because that book was so good. But I’ll try to keep my biases in check; the Nebula is voted on by other science fiction and fantasy writers, not me.
Though they may be technically fantasy novels— the orogenes practice something like magic—the Broken Earth trilogy is heavily informed by the sciences, especially geology and physics. Nebula voters are a coalition government of sorts, and this series straddles the line between science fiction and fantasy quite easily.
Moreover, The Stone Sky supplies a beautiful, painful, masterful ending to a series worth all those superlatives. Second person narration is difficult to pull off. Jemisin has not only pulled it off, but twisted it into pretzels, transforming what a writer can do with the tool in a unique and challenging way. (The third book in the Jeff VanderMeer’s South Reach trilogy, Acceptance, does something similar, if on a smaller scale—and heck, the first Southern Reach novel, Annihilation, won the Nebula for 2015.)
I can’t help but feel writers will fill they have to reward writing this good, especially as a culmination of a series that has stretched what is possible in genre writing.
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Why it won’t win:
Categorically speaking, this book has one big strike against it as a potential winner: it’s the third book in a trilogy, and neither of the earlier volumes took home the prize (the first book lost to Uprooted, the second to All the Birds in the Sky). There is one example so far of a third novel in a series taking home the Nebula—Seeker by Jack McDevitt. But McDevitt’s Alex Benedict series is just that, a largely standalone series—not a trilogy. It is a lot easier for voters to pick up a book that details the exploits of a single protagonist than one that wraps up the many dangling plot threads and points of view from two prior books. (I read the seventh Alex Benedict book, Coming Home, for this review series a couple years back; without having read any previous novels, it was perfectly accessible.)
I can’t know for certain, but I suspect coming in cold on The Stone Sky would be insurmountably challenging. Yes, the previous two novels’ nominations mean a good number of the voting members of SFWA may have read them before. But realistically, readership of a trilogy tends invariably to drop from book to book,, regardless of how awesome it is. (My own track record, even with series I adore,is a little embarrassing; life, man.)
Ultimately, The Stone Sky may end up like Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Mercy or Charles E. Gannon’s Raising Caine: both authors were the three-for-three for Nebula nominations, but neither third book picked up the award.
In spite of the odds, I personally think it would be fitting for The Stone Sky to win this year, and not only in recognition of her achievements across the trilogy as a whole. N.K. Jemisin is a writer at the height of her powers, and there’s no question she’s going to win one of these things sooner or later, if the world doesn’t end first. This Season is as good as any.