61 pages 2 hours read

N. K. Jemisin

The Stone Sky

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2017

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

The Stone Sky (2017) is the third volume in N. K. Jemisin’s science fantasy series, The Broken Earth Trilogy. The series combines elements of the fantasy genre, such as magic and the supernatural, with the type of scientific explanation more typical of science fiction (sci-fi) writing. The books subvert the patriarchal, Eurocentric worldview that traditionally informs the fantasy and sci-fi genres: The protagonists are women of color, the setting is not at all inspired by medieval Europe, and the plot tackles issues such as bigotry, enslavement, and exploitation. The novel won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2018, along with the Nebula Award for Best Novel, and the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel.

This guide refers to the 2017 Orbit (Hatchette Book Group) Edition.

Plot Summary

Essun wakes from the coma she fell into after using the Obelisk Gate, a network of powerful floating gemstone obelisks, to defend the underground community of Castrima at the end of the previous novel. Essun is a powerful orogene, a person who possesses the ability to control seismic activity, often by diverting kinetic or thermal energy from their surroundings. As a result of her extreme exertion of orogenic power, Essun’s right arm has turned to stone, and she can no longer use orogeny without more of her body petrifying. She quickly learns that using the Obelisk Gate also destroyed the underground geode that the people of Castrima lived in, so the comm (a diegetic term for this world’s highly structured communities) must undertake a months-long journey to the city of Rennanis, which is now unoccupied after Essun defeated them using the Obelisk Gate. Essun must catch the moon and return it to orbit around the earth to end the cycle of apocalyptic Fifth Seasons forever. Her most urgent goal, however, is to find her daughter Nassun, who vanished at the beginning of the first book.

Meanwhile, Nassun, having just killed her father, Jija, using an obelisk, must leave Found Moon. Upset over what she has had to endure, and furious over the treatment of orogenes, she has decided to destroy the earth by causing the moon to crash into it. She tells Schaffa, her mother Essun’s former Guardian, that she needs to get to the other side of the world because from there she will be able to use the Obelisk Gate to enact her plan. Schaffa agrees to go anywhere she wants to go. He has vague memories of Corepoint—the city on the other side of the world—but cannot remember how to get there. They ask Steel, a stone eater who has been following Nassun around since she used an obelisk, and he informs them of a transport station that can take them there. Stone eaters are ancient, sentient beings made of stone. They have their own motives and politics but rely on orogenes like Essun and Nassun to help them achieve their goals.

Nassun and Schaffa find the station without much trouble. They discover that it is a “deadciv” ruin that descends into a long-dormant volcano. Nassun uses an obelisk to power the transport system, which travels through the center of the earth to reach Corepoint. Schaffa’s pain intensifies as they get closer to the earth’s core until he is writhing in agony, and Nassun realizes that the corestone embedded in Schaffa’s brain—the source of his power and his pain—comes from the heart of the earth. Once the vehicle pierces through the earth’s core, Father Earth speaks to Nassun, calling her “little enemy.” By the time the vehicle has started its ascent to the other side of the world, Schaffa’s mind has broken from the pain. When they arrive at Corepoint, Nassun finds an apartment where she tends to Schaffa, but when he continues to deteriorate week after week, she decides it is time to end the world.

Hoa, the stone eater who has accompanied Essun throughout the series and the narrator of the story, informs Essun that he thinks Nassun intends to use the Obelisk Gate, that she killed Jija using an obelisk, and that she is with Schaffa. The revelation makes Essun rethink reuniting with Nassun, as she does not need her protection. She recommits to helping Castrima so that Nassun might have a future with them after Essun has recaptured the moon. The remainder of the journey to Rennanis is treacherous and deadly, and hundreds die along the way. Eventually, they reach Rennanis, but Essun is forced to leave after a few days, as the moon is approaching the closest point of its orbit. Hoa transports her and a small group of friends through the earth to Corepoint, where she hopes she can stop Nassun from using the Obelisk Gate before her.

In a series of flashbacks, Hoa tells his story. He reveals that his name used to be Houwha and that he was a tuner—a being genetically engineered by scientists in Syl Anagist that has abilities very similar to orogenes. Syl Anagist is building something called the Plutonic Engine, which they believe will give them unlimited, self-perpetuating energy by tapping into the earth’s core. The tuners are a part of this machine, and therefore the Sylanagistines view them as tools rather than people.

A woman named Kelenli is introduced to the tuners. She is brought in to help them with the Plutonic Engine launch; however, privately she reveals that her real motive is to teach them about their real identity. While Kelenli does not look like them—she has brown skin and is tall, while they are pale and short—they sense that she has abilities like them. Eventually, Kelenli gives them a history lesson. Long ago, Syl Anagist (the dominant civilization at this point) was just a small part of a larger nation. However, it took over that nation and then kept expanding until it had taken over the entire world. One of the peoples it conquered and forced into assimilation was the Niess. The Niess were more adept at creating things that used magic than Sylanagistines. Syl Anagist responded by creating lies and myths about Niess sessapinae, an organ in the brain, being more sensitive to magic. Over time, they dehumanized them enough to justify genocide. When it became clear that there was no factual basis for the lies and myths, Syl Anagist created the tuners based on their racist caricature of the Niess as further justification. Kelenli then shows them that Niess bodies—technically alive, but not living, thinking, or feeling—are being used to power the obelisks that will form the Plutonic Engine.

This revelation upends the tuners’ worldview, and they decide to turn the launch of the Plutonic Engine back on Syl Anagist to destroy it and the people who created it. However, when they go to enact their plan on launch day, Father Earth is also ready to fight back against Syl Anagist. He has taken control of some of the obelisks and attempts to destroy all life on earth. Houwha makes the decision to stop this—wanting to protect Kelenli, whom he has fallen in love with—and redirects the energy built up in the Plutonic Energy at the moon. The blast of energy pushes the moon out of its orbit. This event became known as “The Shattering”; it was the start of the cycle of Fifth Seasons. As punishment, Father Earth turns the tuners into stone eaters.

Back in the present, as Nassun begins the process of starting the Obelisk Gate, Father Earth takes control of Schaffa and removes his corestone, hoping this will deter Nassun from completing her task. At this point, Essun arrives. Nassun ignores her because she is so focused on trying to help Schaffa. She activates the Obelisk Gate and plans to use it to save Schaffa by turning everyone in the world into a stone eater. Essun realizes what is happening, connects to the onyx obelisk, and begins battling Nassun for control of the Gate. Reaching a stalemate, Essun gives up, not wanting to see another one of her children die. Nassun, surprised by her mother’s decision and the fact that she wants to save the earth, despite all her suffering, changes her mind and finishes her mother's plan. The process turns Essun to stone, but the moon is recaptured, and Hoa negotiates a truce that would stop the Seasons with Father Earth.

The novel ends with Hoa turning Essun into a stone eater, and the two of them resolving to make the world a better place.

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