I know fantasy readers who won’t touch a series before it’s completed; the heartbreak of disrupted or elongated publishing schedules is simply too much for them. That’s fair. I prefer not to get my heart frustrated—or broken—too. That said, there is nothing like the pleasure of sticking with a trilogy from the very start: that astonishing first-blush reading experience, the breathless anticipation for more, the wait and reward that sets me reading, bleary, well into the night, that final thump as I close the last book and think, ah. When it all comes together, the experience is akin to magic. Not all series reward me this way, but The Stone Sky, the final book in N.K.Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, is something like magic.
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The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate detail the lives of Essun and Nassun, mother and daughter, both before the cataclysm and after. The cataclysm is two-fold. Essun was a rogue orogene, a person born with an innate, near-magical mastery over the earth itself. At the start, she’s hidden in with the stills, the non-orogenic, on the apocalyptic continent of Stillness, which has faced an endless cycle of natural disasters on a massive scale—Fifth Seasons, they’re called—but always managed to endure. Perhaps because of this apocalyptic heritage, the Stillness manages orogenes like a resource, like chattel; they are used to quell the Evil Earth, and despised for it. Even Essun’s husband, the father of her children, doesn’t know of her orogeny—until the horrific day when her toddler son displays the same abilities in front of her husband. For this, the father kicks his boy to death, fleeing with his likewise orogenically talented daughter, Nassun, on some terrified quest to save the girl from herself. When Essun comes home to a dead child and a missing one: this is the first cataclysm.
The second is a rending of the earth itself. The Stillness has survived for millennia in preparation for the next inevitable Fifth Season—the one after the usual four that means death, disruption, and apocalypse. Its citizens follow a lore designed to take them—or enough of them to rebuild—through the dying times. At the same time Essun finds her son dead and her daughter taken, a man raises his hands and splits the world asunder. This Season will be the end of humanity, if no one sets it right. The rifting will last centuries, not decades. No lore in the world can account for this.
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So the series opens with a rift—not just in the earth, but between mother and daughter. In The Fifth Season, we learn the mother’s long, sedimentary history: Essun’s brutal education at the hands of the Guardians, who harshly control the orogene people; her less brutal but still harsh education with Alabaster, a fellow orogene and something like a lover, if that term can encompass everything from hate to envy to a sideways kind of romantic love; her days on the road after the rifting. The Obelisk Gate considers the life of daughter Nassun post-rift, on the blighted road with her increasingly dangerous father, and later, an equally dangerous figure from her mother’s past. We also learn of her mother’s wanderings, both in search of her daughter, and for a community with which to wait out the Season.
Both mother and daughter realize this Season will not end without the intervention of a strong orogene–one who can control the vast, inscrutable crystalline technology of the ancient people who lived before before the Stillness. Both have this power, but they envision using it in radically different ways to end both the subjugation of the orogenes, and the ongoing, rifting apocalypse. The Stone Sky finds parent and child orbiting one another on a collision course, dragging across an ashen landscape toward a climactic encounter. This will not be a grand, ebullient reunion; both Essun and Nassun are too damaged for that, warped and changed by something like the geological pressures they can control, but which are ultimately uncontrollable. Nassun is ten years old. Her mother has lost all of her children save one.
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As befits a series that details the lives of humans capable of an almost magical mastery over the earth, The Stone Sky covers a history measurable in geological time. We work back to a time before the Stillness, before the Seasons, before the appearance of the strange, statuesque (and I use the word literally) stone eaters who dog both mother and daughter throughout the series. Much of the narrative is written in the second person, in a voice that almost apologizes for its understanding, like compassion is worse than condemnation. (Maybe it is.) In this final volume, we learn our narrator’s long history, and unearth the beginning of the end of it all.
The Stone Sky is one of the most satisfying concluding volumes to a trilogy I have ever read. This is not because everything is wrapped up neatly and tidily, handing out rewards to the deserving and punishing the wicked. The Stillness is a place of hard choices, and hard choices are what we are given, in the end. This book, and this trilogy, pull off a feat that works something like magic, a trick that ends with its beginnings and begins where it ends.