“…some worlds were built on a fault line of pain, held up by nightmares. Don’t lament when those worlds fall. Rage that they were built doomed in the first place.”
The world of Stillness is as good as dead. The planet is being smothered under volcanic ash by the Rifting, caused by an orogene who couldn’t stand being a slave for one more moment. But Alabaster had a plan when he cracked the planet in half, and he’s taught his former lover Essun how it’s going to work. All she has to do now is use the Obelisk Gate to tap into all the energy boiling up from the Rift.
Unfortunately Essun’s ten-year-old daughter Nassun has learned how to harness the Obelisk Gate as well. The third book in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy finds mother and daughter on opposite sides of a war that goes back centuries, each with a different goal in mind. Both of them want to stop the ten-thousand-year Season before humanity starves, but Essun wants to do it by returning the lost Moon to its orbit to end the Seasons once and for all.
Nassun plans to crash the Moon into the planet and end everything.
This is where it all comes together, not just the separate storylines of Essun and Nassun, but the entire history of Stillness itself. We finally learn about the civilization that created the floating obelisks, how the stone-eaters and the Guardians were made, and what exactly Alabaster was doing in the decade after Antimony dragged him away from the slaughter of his family. Okay, most of that last bit is just frustratingly brief snippets of a diary he kept as he was going (more) insane. But we do get to hear the story of Essun’s loyal stone-eater Hoa, about the cause of the war between humanity and the planet, and why some of the other stone-eaters have sided with Nassun against humanity.
I was worried when I started this book that Nassun would come across as a cartoonish villain who’s been brainwashed into wanting to destroy the world. Or worse, a child throwing a tantrum, trying to get back at an overbearing mother. Not so; Nassun has more than enough reason for wanting to end all the suffering that she and every orogene has had to go through. She’s ten years old, and she’s crushed by the immensity of knowing that nothing she does will stop people from being afraid of the orogenes they’ve enslaved. Jemisin takes the reader inside Nassun’s breakdown, reliving everything she’s had to go through from the moment she found her baby brother murdered by her father, and by the end I was left wondering if ending it all was any less sane than letting the suffering go on. And on. And on.
“They’ll just go on being scared forever, and we’ll just go on living like this forever, and it isn’t right. There should be a – a fix. It isn’t right that there’s no END to it.”
Adding to her resolve is Schaffa, the horrifying Guardian who’s become the only person left in the world whom Nassun loves and trusts. For good reason. Schaffa remains one of the bigger surprises in this series. Jemisin asks us to feel some sympathy for him, and by God I actually did. It made sense that Nassun would be willing to kill everything, everywhere, if it meant Schaffa wouldn’t be in pain anymore.
Jemisin continues to dazzle with her skill to create entirely new civilizations, new sciences, new races, and then immerse the reader in all the beautiful and terrifying details. Like the otherworldly civilization of the obelisk-builders, and the language their constructs speak that’s made up of vibrations sent through different geological strata, so one person’s name can translate to deep stab, breach of clay sweetburst, soft silicate underlayer, reverberation. Or the way the stone eaters move, how wrong it looks when they move slowly, how terrifying it is when you blink and they’re suddenly in your FACE. What the Rifting looks like (a wall of volcanic smoke as wide as a continent, shot through with lightning) or the process where an orogene starts turning to stone (with the added panic from having to decide in an instant which body part you can afford to lose.)
The mechanism of the Obelisk gate is completely over my head, but Jemisin paints a stunningly epic vision of a swarm of skyscraper-sized obelisks floating into formation, all the power of an ancient civilization and a planet-wide disaster ready to change an entire planet…
…which, ultimately, will do nothing to fix the actual problem: people.
They’re afraid because we exist, she says. There’s nothing we did to provoke their fear, other than exist. There’s nothing we can do to earn their approval, except stop existing – so we can either die like they want, or laugh at their cowardice and go on with our lives.
The story of Stillness has always been the story of how human beings go out of our way to single out the other. We always knew that a system that includes the Fulcrum, the Guardians, the lobotomized orogene children strapped to wire chairs, all of it had to come from something deeply poisonous. But even though Hoa’s story goes back for hundreds of centuries, in the end it’s all still the same petty fears and rationalizations, the total lack of empathy as long as we’ve convinced ourselves that we’re better than them. There’s a lot of rage here, rage at a society that will abuse, and then hate the abused for deserving it. Rage at the enslavement of an entire race, and then using the fear that the slaves might not like being slaves as justification for enslaving them in the first place. Rage at anyone in power who thinks people will be safe as long as they behave and stop being angry, when anyone who isn’t in power knows that being a good little servant is no protection at all.
Don’t expect an ending with all the loose ends tied neatly. Don’t expect anything tidy. Every character is flawed, and everything they do and that happens to them is messy and tragic and real. Essun’s inability to really bond with people because she’s so focused on just surviving the next moment, Nassun’s rejection of a mother who would literally move mountains to save her but who has never been able to just love her (Jemisin mentions in the afterward that her relationship with her mother played a huge role in creating the dynamic between Nassun and Essun), and all the random deaths and love affairs. It’s all heartbreaking and tragic, and beautiful and weirdly triumphant in a way that I’ll probably never be able to explain.