My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.
I wasn’t as timely as I should have been for getting a review of this out, and now having finished Jemisin’s series and already written what thoughts I could about The Stone Sky, I’m trying to remember the stuff that goes in between those two books. I do remember that this was the odd middle chapter that felt the most like a transition, which I find is not the norm in the fantasy trilogies with which I am familiar: The Two Towers is basically the moment that Tolkien’s dramatic storytelling abilities finally catch up with his worldbuilding, The Subtle Knife is probably the best thing Philip Pullman has ever written, and of course The Empire Strikes Back is the best entry in the Star Wars series.
I suppose it’s a symptom of how complete and fully-realized Jemisin’s creative vision is in The Fifth Season that I still find that to be the best of her books, and this one seems more like a worthy follow-up than a game-changer in its own right. But there’s still plenty of things Jemisin does here that I wish other fantasy authors would do more.
For one thing, Jemisin adds something genuinely new to the second book, rather than simply continuing the story we were reading in the first. The chapters from Schaffa and Nassun’s points of view expand the scope of the novel and let us review the events of the previous volume through fresh eyes. It also allows Jemisin to present more subjective storytelling than she could in the first volume: at first, we needed Essun to be a reliable narrator to a certain extent, needed to be able to trust that her view of her world, and the functions within it, were essentially correct. And because Essun was someone both victimized by the systems within her world enough to make their brutality clear, and strong enough to resist that victimization, we might be left wondering why anyone goes along with such a brutal, unfair system.
With chapters from Nassun and Schaffa’s perspectives, we get to understand the people who manage to fit within the system, and why they would do so. From these perspectives, we get a glimpse into the sort of assumptions that make the subjugation of orogenes palatable, even welcome. And then, in each case, we get to see what happens when that perspective is challenged, both by the person who realizes they are part of the oppressed class, and the person who is used to being an oppressor.
Essun’s part of the story, on the other hand, can be seen as an extension of the section of The Fifth Season that takes place on an island where orgenes and “normal” people live in peace. But rather than being a precolonialist paradise like that island, the colony in which she has taken shelter is an uneasy mix of orogenes and people who have lived their entire lives with Sanzed propaganda telling them that orogenes are meant to be feared. It’s an attempt at forced integration, and Jemisin uses this section to explore the social inequities that can result between a minority population that feels like it must constantly “prove” itself to a majority of suspicious citizens who resent and need this minority in relatively equal measure.
But as with The Fifth Season, Jemisin makes sure the story we’re being told and the underlying political commentary complement each other, rather than get in the way. Readers can understand the commentary while still becoming engrossed in the story: there’s a political dimension to Essun’s attempts to find a place in this community, but it’s inherently dramatic as well, as the consequences of failure could be fatal, to herself as well as others.
If there was a flaw I felt while reading the book, it was that the structure felt bifurcated, and didn’t flow together in such a perfect way as the three storylines in the first book did. But that was a trick you can probably only pull off once per series. Overall, I was so into this book that I initially failed to stop to review it, when on to the sequel immediately, and even now the full trilogy feels like a single continuous story to me.
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