Friday, 20 July 2018

The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

The Stone Sky was the last of the Hugo nominees for Best Novel that I read, and I had a sneaking suspicion that the last would be best. (Unlike one unfortunate book in this category, I had read the preceding novels and so was not jumping in blind.)  N.K. Jemisin just utterly blew me away with The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate, and so I was prepared to be rocked.

What I wasn't prepared for was how hard The Stone Sky was to read. I wasn't expecting it to be easy, but there were sections that hurt so much, so intensely, so specifically, that there were days where I had to let it lie and wait until I felt emotionally stronger. This is not a complaint - I think this book is brilliant, I think this series is just so good, so strong, so powerful...and so painful. And at the end, completely earned, there is a spark of hope. The journey needed to be this painful to get there, but it gets there.

And it's not an easy ending, a pat answer, a way to wrap it all up neatly. It exists within and with the pain that came on this journey, and the pain does not end just because the ending has been reached. We pass traumas down, we perpetuate them, and although cycles can be broken, they cannot simply be waved away.

The book picks up with Essun and her daughter Nassun, still half a world away from each other. Essun wants to reach Nassun, desperately, but Nassun's feelings for her mother are so complicated and rooted in years of abuse done out of fear and love that the same cannot be said in return. Nassun has found someone she loves: horrifyingly, Schaffa. At least, it's horrifying if you've read the other books and know the other things he's done.

Essun, however, much she wants to make it to Nassun, is hampered both by her need to see the comm she joined, however half-heartedly, to relative safety, so that they can continue to try to build a world where orogenes and non-orogenes live side by side. Oh, and also by the fact that her arm has turned to stone during her last, monumental, burst of orogeny. With that new material as an appendage is the knowledge that any further orogeny use will continue her transformation. She is powerful, but cannot use it, unless she accepts a terrible cost.

She struggles with being part of a community when the world has taken so much from her, and caused her to deform herself in so many ways to live in it. But she is part of this one, like it or not, and finding that connection keeps her going on her way.

The story here, though, has a third part - that of Hwa, the stone eater who has accompanied Essun, and has, as it turned out, been around since the world was sundered into the condition it now has. We get flashbacks of what his life was like, as the first generation of what would become orogenes. We see the evil woven into their position from the very beginning, but I don't want to spoil who they were or what they were made for - but the repercussions of othering are there and bring the rest of the world, thousands of years later, into sickening relief.

We find out what the world is as its end draws closer and closer, and that is not metaphorical. Nassun wants to do one thing in reaction to the impending end, Essun another, and, it turns out, the planet has quite an opinion on this too. There are so many layers here, woven together so expertly, that it's mind-blowing. And it's difficult - this is about multi-generational trauma, about cycles of oppression and societies built on exploitation, and the ways in which that infests every aspect of them, whether you realize it or not.

I wasn't sure, all the way through, how bleakly this would end, and it would have earned a bleak ending, had Jemisin chosen that. But the one she did write is earned as well, in all its fragile hope for change, even in a world as hostile as the one Essun and Nassun have experienced.

This is brilliant. The whole series is just fucking brilliant. More than that, it's important, and urgent, and there's nothing else out there like it.

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