I went into The Stone Sky, by N.K. Jemisin with a bad attitude. I feel pretty strongly that a Best Novel (or Novella, or Dramatic presentation, etc) has to be able to stand alone, and the third book of a trilogy is unlikely to do that. Also, I read the excerpt when book 2 was nominated last year, and it did very little for me.
And… look, I don’t really know what to do with this one. The world building is complex and very thorough, which is a good thing in most circumstances, but coming in at book three felt rather like reading in a foreign language – there were bits that lacked context and which I felt I only half-understood at best. This was frustrating, and turned what would otherwise have been a strength into a weakness. (And this is why you shouldn’t nominate book three of a trilogy, folks! If you love the first book, then fine, nominate it. But after that, wait and nominate it for best series, already!)
Having said that, the characters carried me through to the extent that I kept reading all the way to the end, despite my disgruntlement, because I wanted to know what happened to them (mild spoiler: nothing good. This is only a mild spoiler because even going into this story with very little information about it, it seemed pretty clear that misery levels were going to be high).
The way the story was told was also designed to drive me right up the wall. There is a lot of second person, and a lot of random bits of documents from someone writing in the past, not to mention an entire separate plot thread from a different era entirely, and it was really only in the last couple of chapters that I felt that I had any idea what was going on. I suspect – no, I know! – that there are plenty of people out there who would love this sort of storytelling, but it drove me absolutely batty.
(Yes, Andrew, I can see you pricking up your ears. You would probably love this, because you are the sort of person who likes extremely irritating books, and I love you, but sometimes I don’t understand you…)
I don’t know how to review this fairly. The book 3 factor was a problem for me, but even without that, the literary style would have annoyed me, and even without THAT, I’d probably not have enjoyed this book very much because it’s really fairly depressing. The fact that I liked the characters didn’t help with that. I think the main reason I kept reading is that I wanted to find out who the characters in the Syl Anagist chapters were – their story, thankfully, WAS self-contained, and I liked it a lot – and this was resolved late enough in the book that I figured I might as well find out what happened to everyone else at that point. (Don’t get me wrong, I really did like the other characters – but they had Doomed, Doomed, Sadly, Miserably Doomed written all over them. I don’t think I could have read their story alone).
So, where does this leave me? It leaves me with a book that is, certainly, a very good book, but which I really didn’t like for a lot of reasons relating to personal taste. Does it past the ‘standalone’ test? Maybe. Barely. I think that depends on your tolerance for reading a book where you spend a lot of time not really understanding what is going on or why. And I’m not even sure that this isn’t intentional – I think Jemisin is deliberately opaque in places. To be frank, I don’t think I’d have liked this book very much even if it HAD been standalone.
I don’t know whether this goes above or below New York: 2140 on my ballot. It’s better-written, but an order of magnitude more annoying. And did I mention the general misery?
Let’s hope the next few novels turn out to be books I actually like without having to work quite this hard to be fair…