RogerBW's Blog

The Stone Sky, N K Jemisin 30 December 2018

2017 Hugo- and Nebula-award-winning science-fantasy, third in its trilogy. It seems as though there may after all be a chance to save the world; but is it worth saving, and what will it look like afterwards?

As in The Obelisk Gate, the narrative is mostly split between Essun (still second person, travelling with the survivors of the community that was attacked in the climax of the last book) and her daughter Nassun (third person, straightforwardly out for revenge), in different places; it's now blended with another thread, with a first-person narrator unnamed at the start, set in the distant past when the obelisks and other things were being set up.

Which means that we get quite a bit of explanation of what the obelisks and stone eaters are, why the Guardians work that way, and so on; and like most stories that have had a long build-up and examination of the mystery, the explanation is to some degree anticlimactic. It's also tied in with the book's message: yes, racism really did destroy civilisation. While the earlier books kept things hidden, the situations could feel to some degree universal and easily analogous to matters in the real world; here, they're specific, and specifically different, in a way that causes me to feel that the world has been set up just to get the particular point across. (Which fictional worlds are, of course, to some extent; but they shouldn't feel like it.)

It is perhaps unreasonable to be disappointed because what the first book promised, the end of humanity, is averted; but I am. I thought Jemisin had more guts than to set up this situation and then, at the end, to make everything right (or at least right-ish) with a wave of the hand.

The writing has previously been very good, but often turns rough here; in particular tenses flop about, mostly present but dropping into the past apparently at random.

We all sent her quick pulses of reassurance that we are equally mystified; the problem was not her.

It's distracting (whereas the second-person narration, a valid approach though one I dislike, comes over as artificially distancing – because I am not doing and feeling these things that "you" are said to be doing and feeling – but as a deliberate stylistic choice). I kept tripping over sentences like

Geoarcanity seeks to establish an energetic cycle of infinite efficiency.

(Infinite efficiency? What does that even mean, given that it's not meant to destroy everything instantly?), or a place described as "the Antarctics" (and indeed "Polar") which doesn't seem to be particularly cold or to take a hard journey (on foot) to reach; and so I had difficulty losing myself in the narrative.

That's the core problem for me, really: I wasn't grabbed. There are some interesting stories here, but I found the message was pushed so hard – and it is basically the same message as before – that I only once felt any particular sympathy for these artificial and dreary constructs. When Essun notices herself falling into the patterns of a fantasy-story hero, I wasn't amused; I was just waiting to see what Jemisin would do to make sure that was nasty the way everything else is made nasty.

Nobody (human or not) ever tries to talk to anyone else to try to do something about their problems rather than lashing out; to some extent that's the point, because in this world an inferior talking to a superior always and inevitably brings punishment and every relationship between groups is like that, but it seems a shame that the idea is never mentioned. If you're unhappy with your lot, the only thing to do is to smash the world, one way or another.

This feels as if I'm complaining that it wasn't fun, and indeed I didn't find it so, but it's not meant to be fun, so that's fair enough. It is meant, I think, to generate some emotional resonance, and apart from the actual climactic moment – which is superb – for me it didn't. The first book was uncomfortable but great; after that, for me, volumes two and three were disappointments.

Read for Neil Bowers' Hugo-Nebula Joint Winners Reread. The other nominees for the 2018 Hugo were John Scalzi's The Collapsing Empire, Kim Stanley Robinson's New York 2140 (neither of which I've read, nor do I plan to), Ann Leckie's Provenance which I thought was great, Yoon Ha Lee's Raven Stratagem which is still on my list to read, and Mur Lafferty's Six Wakes which I'm mildly amazed anyone thought awards-worthy.

Nebula nominees also included Six Wakes, but were otherwise disjoint: Lara Elena Donnelly's Amberlough, Theodora Goss' The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter, Daryl Gregory's Spoonbenders, Fonda Lee's Jade City and Annalee Newitz' Autonomous. The only one of those I've even heard of is the Goss (which I enjoyed, but wouldn't have thought of putting in a best-of-the-year list).

This concludes the Hugo-Nebula Joint Winners Reread. The only book that was new to me, and that I really enjoyed, was Dreamsnake; many previous winners stood up poorly, though a few were surprisingly good even by modern standards.

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See also:
The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter, Theodora Goss
Six Wakes, Mur Lafferty

Previous in series: The Obelisk Gate | Series: The Broken Earth

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