How do you wrap up a series that has many characters, plot points and worldbuilding questions? How do you give a satisfactory ending to a character’s motivation that started way back in the first book? What does an ending look like that is both unexpected and makes sense in the context of this world?
If you’ve ever struggled with these questions when writing your story, then may I suggest you consult with N.K. Jemisin (if you know her personally) or read The Stone Sky because my goodness, the ending is a whooper!
(Also, I want to take the time to acknowledge that Jemisin is a hardworking writer. I believe these books were all published within a year of one another and I’d like to imagine that she had everything nicely outlined and planned out before beginning the first draft. But it’s still impressive that she managed to publish three, phenomenal, award-winning books in such a short amount of time!)
In thinking about how to approach this review, I had the idea of essentially regurgitating my preview reviews, while singing constant praise for the entire series. (I can’t stress enough how great this series is.) But I think for this review, I want hone in on the relationship at the heart of this story: Nassun and Essun.
The Stillness is a brutal place and some of the horrific occurrences happen on such a frequent basis that people barely flinch at it. I’m reminded of a scene early in the second book where Jija (Nassun’s father) tries to help an injured, elderly man before realizing the man would be too much of a burden because it’s a Season and survival is the name of the game during a Season. Without much thought, Jija breaks the man’s neck, before he and Nassun continue their journey. There are scenes like this throughout the series of horribleness told with a matter of fact tone, because again, it’s a Season.
This brutality harms the orogenes and the Fulcrum the most. Thinking about it now, the Fulcrum is genuinely a terrible place built on the active oppression and subjugation of orogenes. If orogenes step out of line, then there are dealt with according to their ring-level. Low level orogenes disappear never to be seen again. Alabaster once ran away from the Fulcrum for a time. He returned eventually, though his punishment wasn’t given until much later when he witnessed his mentor/lover be obliterated after being engulfed in the arms of a shirtless Guardian. Essun, back when she was known as Syenite, had her hand broken by Schaffa her Guardian and we get the sense in a later scene that this hand breaking is something plenty of young orogenes go through before arriving at the Fulcrum. Even Nassun, endures the trauma of having her hand broken by her own mother, which seems like the most egregious offense Essun committed against her daughter.
(There’s something to be said about the number of times a character had their hand broken or cut off and how this relates to the idea of being useful in a Season. By the end of the series, at least four characters have their arms taken away and three were powerful orogenes.)
There is a cycle of trauma, abuse and oppression that exists in this world that has occurred some form over the course of millenniums.
How does this impact Essun and Nassun’s relationship?
It created a rift so deep that forgiveness was never an option for the two women. Maybe an acknowledgment of the pain each suffered. But never forgiveness.
The hard truth readers and Essun must face is Nassun never wanted to be rescued by her mother. The thought of Essun coming for her never crosses Nassun’s mind in the second book and there is a hostility towards of mother that stews over time. Essun’s love, though subdued and hidden, isn’t enough to repair her relationship with her daughter.
That’s why the ending is gut-wrenching. Nassun and Essun are reunited and a literal wall is built (by Nassun) to separate them. (I’m feeling weepy thinking about it again!) Despite the buildup to their reunion, these two women spend one scene together and it breaks your heart. It’s storytelling at its highest level. I didn’t cry, but I certainly felt emotional and found myself tearing up.
The relationship between mother and daughter is at the crux of this story. This is a story set against the end of the world and yet all of the emotion comes from an imperfect mother and a weary child.
The Stone Sky and The Broken Earth trilogy as a whole will stick with me for many years to come. My hope is that over the course of these three previous reviews, I have convinced you to read the first book. You won’t be disappointed!