Review: The Stone Sky by N.K.Jemisin

The Stone Sky is propelled by its own gravity. As the Earth’s lost moon returns, the massive fissure across the planet’s equator continues to spew ash and lava-hot fragments. The sky is dark and the rain is acidic and survival rests on hard choices, discipline and stonelore. Independently Essun and her lost daughter Nassun are seeking the same answers and the same powers.

As with the previous books, we have three interweaved accounts. Essun and Nassun form two, continuing from the events of The Obelisk Gate. The third takes us thousands of years into the past, to an apparent utopia with a dark past, on the brink of creating unlimited power through the creation of gemstone obelisks.

In my first rambling review of The Fifth Season, while I was trying to get my head around a story that left me feeling shaken and awestruck, I talked about how utopian fiction is connected both to dystopian fiction but also apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction. In Western literature, Plato’s Atlantis myth lurks at the root of each of them. For Plato Atlantis was a model of a better society, for modern readers that society and the rigid stratification of roles in Plato’s Republic can be seen as the prototype of fascism and fascist-like models that have plagued us for millennia.[ETA I mangled Plato somewhat there – conflating Atlantis with Plato’s ideal of ancient Athens. Apologies :)] In modern popular culture, Atlantis has been reimagined again as a parable of hubris or the sin of Frankenstein – letting intellectual desire surpass moral constraints.

Syl Anagist is N.K.Jemisin’s synthesis of the Atlantean tropes, less clearly regimented than the society of the Stillness we see thousands of years later, but still dangerous and brutal and willing to treat people as tools and objects. Syl Anagist is the source of the “Dead Civ” remains scattered through the first two books. Beautiful and majestic and replete with wonders, it is both a city, a nation and the whole world. We are constantly reminded that in Syl Anagist life is sacred.

It is no spoiler to say that Syl Anagist is doomed. The chapters detailing its demise are numbered as a count down, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0. We know that the Earth will lose the moon and that the planet will become the tectonically seasonal monster of The Fifth Season. The fantasy elements (magical powers, sentient rocks) of the story become more distinct, while the science fictional elements (futuristic cities, incredible technology) become more overt. The human tragedy becomes more intense.

The future world, the one in which most of the books is set, has descended further into physical disaster. The former community of Castrima is now a band of refugees heading towards an empty city in a brutal march which many won’t survive. In a different novel, this struggle would be an account of good and evil but Jemisin avoids treating even monstrous people as monsters. There is no character that appears in any one of the trilogy who is not granted some compassion by the writer – not Schaffa the murderous guardian, nor Jija the child murdering father. Yet this compassion is not at the expense of a strong moral centre to the story and a channelled anger at the use of hate to dehumanise and to brutalise a society.

Is The Stone Sky as good as the previous books? I’m not sure the question can be answered or makes sense. It can’t possibly have the same impact as The Fifth Season but it feels to me like the right end to the trilogy. There is a sense of understanding of the world by the end of the book that feels like a resolution even though some questions remain. I’m not sure if the conflict between the Stone Eater factions is clear to me, nor am I entirely clear about the nature of the Guardians. However, some of that comes from reading too quickly.

It is not a happy end to the trilogy but it is a good end and an end that is not devoid of hope.

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9 comments

  1. Stevie

    Plato wasn’t creating a Utopia in Atlantis; he was haranguing his fellow Athenians for having created a thalassocracy -Athens/Atlantis- instead of fighting shoulder to shoulder in a manly way, just like the Spartans, on dry land.

    Of course the Spartans had a navy as well, but Plato had no problems with ignoring stuff which didn’t fit, and he was perfectly content to be rescued by the Athenian navy, notwithstanding the fact that he thought there shouldn’t be one.

    If you read it again, bearing in mind that Plato wrote it as a dystopia, it would probably change your perspective on it. It’s probably just as well that few writers realise this; there would be far fewer books…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Andrew M

    Certainly, Atlantis is not an ideal state. It is the opponent of the ideal state. Archaic Athens, which is presented as the ideal state, goes to war with Atlantis and defeats it. All this is completely explicit.

    It’s true that modern versions of the story do confuse the matter rather, by having Atlantis destroyed by a catastrophe at the height of its power – whereas in Plato the catastrophe comes after it’s already been overthrown, and seems largely to be intended to explain the loss of the memory. So in both versions it can be read as a story of hubris defeated, but not in the same way.

    I’d say there are really two distinct sources of these ideas in Plato – the Republic is a source for utopia/dystopia stories, the Atlantis legend in the Timaeus, though loosely linked with the Republic, is a source for apocalyptic stories.

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