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“The Stone Sky” by N.K. Jemisin

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The first two books in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy have received deserved accolades for their compelling characters, vivid setting, and a plot that keeps the reader turning pages. In The Stone Sky, Jemisin sticks the landing, successfully bringing plot threads and character arcs to a satisfying close.

The Stone Sky resolves mysteries that were set up in the earlier books, such as the origin of the stone eaters and the nature of the Guardians. When a story reaches this point, it can sometimes feel like a letdown. This book avoids that pitfall by having some of the answers be truly awe-inspiring (or terror-inspiring, as the case may be). It also suggests the truth of an old quote: “The larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of mystery.” The ancient civilization that built the obelisks isn’t the oldest civilization, and there are hints that other cultures may have known things they didn’t. This allows the setting to maintain a sense of wonder even as the directly plot-relevant mysteries are being solved.

We also see the payoff from character development that has been building up over the first two books, primarily Essun’s gradual acceptance of being able to rely on other people. One moment, in which several characters agree to undertake a perilous journey with her, is particularly touching.

Finally, the book establishes the reason for a narrative convention that I mentioned in my review of The Fifth Season: having some chapters written from a second-person point of view. While I still think second-person POV doesn’t read smoothly over such a long story, the full revelation about why these chapters are written that way is one of the reasons why the novel (and thus the series) ended on a strong note.

“The Obelisk Gate” by N. K. Jemisin

Second books in trilogies have a reputation for not being quite as good as the first and third books. They don’t have the advantage of presenting the reader with a new world, and usually they’re building up for the climax to come in the final book. While I obviously can’t compare The Obelisk Gate to the yet-to-be-released third book in N. K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy, I can say that it doesn’t represent a drop in quality from The Fifth Season.

In this novel, we learn more about the nature of the conflict that was (mostly) simmering beneath the surface in The Fifth Season. We’re also given more insight into the two most mysterious factions in that conflict, the stone-eaters and the Guardians. As part of this, Jemisin extensively develops characters who didn’t get much time in the spotlight in the first book. We also spend part of the book with Essun’s daughter Nassun, whom she spent much of The Fifth Season searching for.

In addition to all of this, The Fifth Season ratchets up the stakes for the main characters and sets the stage for the final conflict that is presumably to come. As with the previous book in the trilogy, The Obelisk Gate left me eager to read the next one.

“The Fifth Season” by N. K. Jemisin

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Following the success of her Inheritance Trilogy (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, and The Kingdom of Gods), fantasy author N.K. Jemisin has begun another three-book series, The Broken Earth. The Fifth Season, the first book in the new trilogy, is set in a world where the inhabitants live in a perpetual state of readiness for Seasons, periods of time during which seismic or volcanic activity cuts off sunlight and causes other ecosystem-wide effects.

The worldbuilding in this novel captivated me. Jemisin gives her setting (a world called the Stillness) a rich history and detailed culture that make the story feel more real. One aspect I particularly enjoyed was that each chapter ends with a quote from the history texts or lore of the Stillness.

The story follows two primary characters: Damaya (later known as Syenite), a young girl; and Essun, a woman living in a small community whose son has just been murdered. Both are orogenes, people with an innate ability to stop—or start—the deadly earthquakes that everyone in the Stillness fears. Because orogeny is considered to be dangerous, most people hate and fear orogenes, and some will even kill them on sight. The only way for them to earn even a modicum of social acceptance is to undergo rigorous training to control their abilities at a place called the Fulcrum.

Jemisin’s writing draws the reader into the struggles (both internal and external) that these characters experience, and makes us care about what happens to them. As with the detailed worldbuilding, the complex relationships between the characters enhance the realism and emotional impact of the story.

While the quality of the writing is generally excellent, there’s one stylistic choice Jemisin made that I found a bit off-putting. Essun’s chapters are written in second-person POV. While this can work well for short stories, I found it getting a bit tedious over the course of a novel-length work. However, this didn’t dampen my enjoyment of the book much. Overall, I would say that this is one of the most engaging novels I’ve read in quite some time. While partway through, I pre-ordered the sequel, The Obelisk Gate. Since the last time I ordered the next book in a series before having finished the first one is when I was reading A Song of Ice and Fire, that’s a pretty big compliment.