In the first chapter of The Stone Sky, Essun wakes up. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Broken Earth.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of body horror
I made a note of this down below as I was reading this for the first time, but… okay. Wow. This chapter features people wearing masks and goggles because ash falling has blocked out the sun. That’s… that’s a lot to read right now, isn’t it? THANKS, I HATE IT, WE ARE IN THE WORST TIMELINE.
Even if that wasn’t the case, though, Jemisin works wonders here crafting the world post-Castrima. It’s eerie. Disorienting. Disturbing. And I can’t ignore how fucking brilliant it is that this is all told through the lens of Hoa, so we’re getting this extra layer to the story on top of it all? The opening parts, where Hoa provides a sort of exposition to both us and Essun? IT’S INCREDIBLE. There’s just always so much going on with these books? I know I’ve said this before, but it must be such an entertaining thing to re-read this series and see new parts to Jemisin’s storytelling.
Anyway, this picks up just a few days after the end of the previous book, and in that time, the people of Castrima have abandoned their subterranean geode for Rennanis. All of this was already intense because of the ending of the last book, but as I said, Jemisin paints a terrible portrait of the world as the survivors head for the now-empty comm to hopefully… well, survive some more. Emotionally, there’s a baseline dread in this plot, but guess what? Jemisin adds more because why not hurt us??? Actually, it’s the emotional stuff layered in here that’s so unnerving to me. It is a good thing that these people survived, and I think any of us can understand that Essun was put into a difficult position because of the attack on Castrima. Still, there are two main emotional threads that are the result of her decision to open the Gate and turn the inhabitants of Rennanis to stone.
First, and the most immediate concern, is that Essun pretty quickly realizes the physical cost she’s had to pay for opening the gate. She’s not surprised, of course, since she already saw the same thing happen to Alabaster. There were moments in this chapter where Essun was detached from what was happening to her, which is deeply understandable. What she just experienced was… shit, pretty traumatic, right? Hoa talks of Essun “rebooting,” so to speak, and it makes sense. Orogenes are a complex system in and of itself, and opening the Gate? I am not shocked that this basically overloaded her and she needed a few days to basically reset her whole body. There’s an interesting structure thing Jemisin does here that I only noticed on the re-read for this review: Hoa starts out very generally, then gradually begins to weave in more exposition, until the POV narration shifts from his first-person/second-person combo to Essun’s close third. Which is so fucking smart! It blows my mind how seamless this is, too, because I certainly didn’t notice it the first time around. But it’s how Jemisin guides us from Essun’s reset state to consciousness. The imagery is haunting, disturbing, too, and then… then we’re right in Essun’s head.
I noticed that one of the first things she wanted that was specific was her runny-sack. Like… not food or water or the bathroom or a familiar face but the one thing that she managed to keep with her since leaving Tirimo. Oh, that hits hard, doesn’t it? Because there are no people around from Tirimo. The only thing she owned was ONE sack. And I know it’s a small detail, but it says so much about Essun’s mindset. Her practicality. Her sentimentality amidst THE END OF THE WORLD, and also the fact that she’s aware she might be able to save it.
She just wants her runny-sack. SOMEONE GO GET IT FOR HER, OKAY.
Amidst this, though—and a lot of this is truly dark and scary—is a whole lot of humor. Some of the dark humor comes from Hoa’s narration, but can we all just praise how fucking funny Hjarka is during a lot of this? SHE PLACED BETS ON WHETHER ESSUN WOULD WAKE UP AND WHETHER SHE’D BE CONSCIOUS AND COGNIZANT. And she is shy to tell everyone to pay up, including Ykka! Hjarka, I absolutely RESPECT you. The same goes for Tonkee, who deliberately baits Essun in order to test her faculties. I LOVE THAT TROPE. She literally annoys Essun further into consciousness. BLESS THIS BOOK.
It is after this, though, that the first emotional thread appears:
Something’s wrong, though. It’s a testament to how much you’ve been through, maybe, that you seem to have developed a permanently crooked posture, your right shoulder sagging and arm dragging as if
as if it is made of
The others stop bothering you as you realize what’s happened.
We knew this. And Jemisin does a classic tension thing where the audience knows something the protagonist does not, and it is here where the dread comes crashing down. I used the word “practicality” when talking about Essun and her runny-sack because she often is a very practical, pragmatic person. Even here, as she examines her arm-turned-into-stone, there’s little direct horror. She might be a bit unnerved, but she also knew this was going to happen. She saw it in Alabaster. Now, she has a very matter-of-fact reason for letting Hoa eat her arm: that shit is heavy. Her body and her joints aren’t meant to continually carry that amount of weight, and Lerna even points out that the stone gets COLDER at night, lowering her body temperature. So, maybe it’s the practical thing, and deep down, Essun knows she needs to let Hoa eat the stone.
We’ll get to that, because I also have to talk about the other emotional element to this chapter: Essun realizing that she’s pissed off most of Castrima. I think these people know that she saved them, and I bet that they’d even be willing to admit that. But look… she destroyed the geode, even if she wasn’t entirely conscious of doing that, even if that wasn’t the intent.
“I didn’t…” You start to say, I didn’t mean to, and stop. Because you never mean it, and it never matters in the end.
Oh, what a brutal sentence. Jemisin calls back to so many things here: young Damaya. The destruction of Tirimo. Allia. How many things did Essun not mean to do? The pain and hurt is still there, though:
Ykka’s reaction, though, proves that some things aren’t about rationality. You can’t take away people’s homes and sense of security in such an immediate, dramatic way, and expect them to consider extended chains of cupability before they get angry about it.
So that’s the atmosphere that Essun is in. In hindsight, I get why Tonkee shushes Essun when Essun brings up Nassun, too. Like… one thing at a time! In a sense, Essun is on thin ice. Look at the way she’s more or less abandoned and left to herself when they camp that night. No one is really rushing to be her friend. So I don’t even know if these people are going to want her to be a part of the new comm, you know??? What if they see her as a powerful weapon, but don’t want to risk having her around? Oh god, it’s the EXACT insecurity she’s had this entire fucking time, y’all!!! ALL OVER AGAIN. Except on a much, much bigger scale.
But Jemisin pulls us back. She reels us in from the massive problems that Essun faces in her near future to bring us into the immediate, the intimate, the unavoidable. Essun and Hoa have one of the strangest relationships I’ve ever read about (and that’s saying something, given what we saw in The Inheritance Trilogy), and I can’t ignore Hoa’s feelings from the end of The Obelisk Gate. This is love, and what he does for Essun in the final scene of chapter one feels like love, even if it’s one of the most upsetting images I’ve encountered in a book. There’s something sweet about how he refused to consume her stone arm in public; he wanted to allow her the grace of privacy. He is tender with her, which seemed like such a direct contradiction to the brutality of what he was going to do, but… maybe isn’t brutal. Maybe it won’t hurt. Maybe, as Hoa says, this has nothing to do with hunger or eating, but something else.
That being said:
His mouth opens. Wide, wider, wider than any human mouth can open. Once you worried his mouth was too small; now it’s wide enough to fit a fist. And such teeth he has, small and even and diamond-clear, glinting prettily in the red evening light. There is only darkness beyond those teeth.
This absolutely makes me want to exit my own body. Truly. It unnerves SO MUCH. Like!!!! It’s so fucking freaky, I CAN’T.
Wow, The Stone Sky is wasting no fucking time, y’all.
- “Let’s review.” OMG it’s like I’m in class and I’m about to be taught and then flung off a mountain
- god, I never really thought about how essun seemed the perfect orogene to go on that mission with alabaster, all because she was just the right kind of obedient. NOW LOOK AT HER.
- omg hoa’s narration is so darkly FUNNY sometimes
- JESUS THIS IS BRUTAL
- oh, okay, so it IS possible for her to open the Gate again. I was worried it was like a one-time-use thing
- I truly cannot wait for essun to find out what has been happening with jija and nassun. but I also can cuz I know it will hurt.
- is lerna taking care of her?
- TWO YEARS????
- HOW LONG WAS SHE OUT
- actually now that I think about it, that time does make sense, given how long she traveled after tirimo and how much time she spent in castrima, but STILL
- are they all heading to rennanis???
- I’m screaming, ONLY HJARKA HAD HOPE
- HAHAHAHA, I love the test Tonkee gives essun to determine if she’s cognizant
- oh. essun realizing her arm is stone is… wow. that was a lot
- wow, I had no idea lerna did tests on alabaster
- I am now realizing that maybe I misread a part at the end of The Obelisk Gate. when hoa was describing the magic in essun’s arm, it was the SAME arm as the stone one, not two separate things happening. right?
- “…and it’s in this moment that you realize you think of her as a friend.” hey, goodbye, I’m done
- everyone wearing masks and goggles… that’s not at all relevant to 2020. not at all
- whoa, why is Tonkee telling Essun to be quiet re: nassun????
- oh, okay, it’s only been a few days
- “Well. Everyone’s lost something.” why must this book attack me so
- oh god hoa’s going to do it now, isn’t he
- WAIT WHERE IS HE TAKING HER
- “This is the pound of flesh you must pay for the blood-debt of your daughter.” WHAT A FUCKING SENTENCE, HOLY SHIT.
- wait, it’s NOT sustenance??? then… what the fuck is it for????
- ESSUN CHOOSING TO SEE HOA AS HUMAN AND THIS ACT AS SOMETHING OTHER THAN PREDATION… I have been SLAYED by this book. holy shit.
- OH MY GOD hoa opening his mouth is terrifying???
- burndown??? there’s that word again!!!!
- WHAT THE FUCK
- what the fuck!!!!!!!!!!!!
Mark Links Stuff
– My second novel, EACH OF US A DESERT, is now out in the world!
– If you’d like to stay up-to-date on all announcements regarding my books, sign up for my newsletter! DO IT.