Every book of N.K. Jemisin’s epic Broken Earth trilogy won a Hugo award, with Jemisin being the first black writer to win this prestigious sci-fi award, period, which basically makes these books historical artifacts. The trilogy concludes with The Stone Sky (2017), which resumes the pattern of Book 1 with a structure of weaving three narrative threads. We continue with the two threads we were following in Book 2, Essun’s journey with the remnants of the Castrima comm to relocate to Rennanis and her quandary of whether she can both find Nassun and fulfill Alabaster’s mission of ending the Seasons, and Nassun’s journey in the aftermath of killing her father and having to flee the Found Moon comm where she was staying. The third thread is Hoa’s, in which he describes the history of how the moon came to be flung from its orbit (by him, as it happens not so coincidentally), starting the Seasons and thus the plot of this whole trilogy in the first place. Labeled “Syl Anagist,” these chapters are actually numbered in reverse chronological order, a countdown to the origin point of the entire narrative.
Hoa, who we now know is the narrator of this entire narrative, begins Book 3 by stating outright that he’s the one who opened the Obelisk Gate and flung the Moon away, ending the world the first time. We then pick up with Essun, who’s being toted on a stretcher by some Castrima comm members as they hike their way to Rennanis because Essun’s efforts to save Castrima from its attackers at the end of Book 2 ended up destroying the geode that previously housed them. Hoa eats her stone arm. Doing any more orogeny will turn her to stone. The comm endures a difficult trek to Rennanis (during which they pick up another orogene Essun knew at the Fulcrum, Maxixe), but eventually make it, at which point Essun, unexpectedly pregnant with Lerna’s baby, feels free to leave and find Nassun, whom Hoa showed her was with Schaffa.
After Nassun kills Jija, she and Schaffa have to kill the other Found Moon guardians and flee. Nassun decides to assume control of the Obelisk Gate, and Steel (the Gray Man stone eater who was fighting against Essun and Hoa in the Castrima-Rennanis battle) directs them to a station where they get in a magic vehicle to take them to Corepoint. Steel warns Schaffa shouldn’t go but he does anyway, and as the vehicle opens enough to reveal they’re passing through the Earth’s core, he starts seizing from the pain of the iron bit in his head (which has been causing him pain on a regular basis since he’s been resisting its direction to kill Nassun). The Earth speaks to Nassun, who realizes the Earth is generating its own silver and thus alive, and that it’s angry that people took its silver. In Corepoint, Steel directs Nassun to an apartment where everything is done with magic, making it easier to take care of the catatonic Schaffa. It’s the apartment Alabaster stayed in when he was taken there by a stone eater after the Meov battle at the end of Book 1, and Nassun finds his diaries describing his plans for the rifting.
Interspersed with Essun’s and Nassun’s ongoing journeys, Hoa tells the story of when he was a “tuner” in Syl Anagist and met a new tuner, Kelenli, as they neared the time the tuners would help start the Plutonic Engine (which turns out to be the Obelisk Gate) to achieve “geoarcanity”—complete energy efficiency. Kelenli has a story to tell the tuners about who they really are, and takes them outside, where they’ve never been, to show them some pieces of this story, culminating with the “briar patch” at the base of the amethyst obelisk where, like the node maintainers in the Stillness, tuners are kept just alive enough to keep the necessary magic flowing for the system to work. Kelenli reveals that she’s really the last “Niess lorist,” and that Syl Anagist took land from the Niess, another people whose magic was more efficient than the Sylanagistines’, and who believed that magic shouldn’t be owned. To discredit this idea, the Sylanagistines invented a mythology that they weren’t human and subjugated them into the tuners. This dismays Hoa, who was previously proud of being a tuner. When Kelenli reveals they’ll all be sent to the briar patch after helping start the Plutonic Engine, Hoa and his fellow tuners plan to use the obelisks to destroy Syl Anagist instead of using them to achieve Geoarcanity. But as they’re attempting to do this, the Earth fights back, generating an energy that Hoa is forced to use an obelisk to redirect at the Moon to prevent it from killing all humanity on Earth, and thus knocking the Moon out of orbit. The tuners had thought their efforts would kill them, but the Earth turns them to stone eaters as retribution, and also starts the Seasons, and also takes retribution against the “conductors” who were manipulating the tuners all along to take the Earth’s magic for their engine by implanting them with bits of its core—thus putting them under Earth’s control and rendering them guardians.
After the Castrima comm has made it to Rennanis, Hoa takes Essun and a few others through the Earth to Corepoint, but they’re attacked by other stone eaters who are opposed to Hoa’s efforts to get the Moon back and make peace with the Earth, and Lerna dies. Shortly before they get there, Nassun is puzzled to see Schaffa up and moving on his own for the first time in weeks, and follows him down into Warrant, where guardians are in catacombs hibernating. She finds a machine forcibly removing the iron bit from the back of his head that he wouldn’t let her remove before. He’s genuinely happy, but then she messes that the living silver inside him is fading and that he’s dying. She leaves to open the Obelisk Gate to turn everyone into stone eaters so Schaffa can be turned into one and live, and as she’s leaving she runs into Essun trying to find her. Nassun has already yoked a bunch of obelisks together to use as a spare key to open the Obelisk Gate, and Essun has to call on the most powerful onyx obelisk to combat it, harnessing all the nearby guardians’ magic in order to do so and thus killing them. Once she has control of the onyx she uses it to harness the power of the Rifting to combat Nassun’s control of the Obelisk Gate in an epic power struggle, Nassun trying to direct the energy to turn everyone to stone eaters and Essun trying to direct the energy into pulling the Moon back to stop the Seasons. As the stalemate of the struggle forces them to both contain the energy for too long, Essun sees Nassun starting to turn to stone, and unable to watch another one of her children die, gives up on the Moon. She releases her hold on the onyx and turns to stone, and when Nassun sees this and gains control fo all the energy, she’s able to feel what Essun was trying to do with the energy—catch the Moon and end the Seasons—and chooses to follow through with what Essun wanted.
Schaffa eventually dies and Nassun goes with the others who came with Essun to Rennanis. Hoa turns Essun into a stone eater, and has been telling her the story of the trilogy for her to be able to maintain her sense of self.
The narrative logic as expressed in the point of view becomes particularly impressive once we have the full picture of all three novels. We knew Hoa was the narrator before Book 3, but at the end we understand a distinct reason for why Hoa is the narrator, and that’s something a lot of books don’t offer beyond a general idea that the story is worth telling. But Hoa is telling the story specifically because of how the story ends–with Essun dead, but in a position to be resurrected in a state where her previous self could be lost, an idea that was set up with what happened to Schaffa. And Schaffa’s loss of self that enabled him to survive the climactic battle at Meov that ended Book 1 is integral to the overall trilogy’s arc as well in a way that also reveals the genius of the narrative–the way it manages to drive a high-stakes action plot–the fate of the world is at stake–through characters’ emotions and development, the action carried on the back of the mother-daughter narrative.
The way Schaffa’s character complicates that mother-daughter relationship and drives the emotional stakes of the story is hard to overstate. We see how his abuse-out-of-love of Damaya-turned-Syenite manifests in how Essun deals with/trains Nassun–manifest most potently in her breaking Nassun’s hand the way Schaffa broke hers. That Schaffa, through then losing his former self who believed in the necessity of that abuse, gets a chance at redemption with the daughter of one of his former charges–a former charge he drove to smother her own son–feels fitting. His loss of self is necessary for him to form a true bond of love with Nassun, one that is ultimately stronger than her love for her mother–a love differential that’s tragic since her love for her mother is lower specifically because of her mother abusing her because of Schaffa’s influence, and a love differential that’s critical for the climax of the action: Nassun ignores her mother telling her not to use the Obelisk Gate because she feels she needs to use it to save Schaffa at any cost. Nassun is essentially forced to choose between her mother and Schaffa, and by that point it’s not a difficult choice for her. The fact that Nassun’s choice is not difficult might mean the tension is lower, but Nassun’s choice isn’t the climax. Her choice necessitates the battle against Essun, which necessitates the choice that’s really the climax–Essun’s. Essun is really the main character here even though Nassun could be deemed a close second. Essun has certainly been through more–three different lives, is what her three different names make it feel like–and in her climactic choice we feel everything she’s been through brought to bear on her decision. She is forced to choose between Nassun and Alabaster, since carrying through with Alabaster’s grand plan to get the Moon back at this point will mean killing Nassun. Essun chooses her child because of having endured the deaths of her previous children. That personal choice essentially means sacrificing the fate of the world, and that Alabaster will have broken it and caused all the consequent suffering for nothing. But that Essun has already had to kill one of her own children herself makes it pretty understandable why she wouldn’t be willing to do it again, no matter the larger cost. At any rate, it turns out to be the right choice, because making it shows Nassun that Essun really does love her in a way she couldn’t understand before (in a way that essentially matches Schaffa’s love), insight that then extends to Essun’s larger plan that she then reverses her previous objective to carry out. So there’s a daisy-chain of choices in the climax predicated on the mother-daughter relationship: Nassun chooses Schaffa, Essun chooses Nassun, Nassun reverses choice to Essun.
Plot-based-on-character-wise, nailed it.
And of course none of that choice-chain with Nassun and Essun could play out without the parent-child relationship that supersedes it: that of the Earth and Moon.
The twist that explains the function of Hoa’s telling the narrative is also nicely set up and ironic: the fact that Essun can be changed into a stone eater. This appears to be due to the fact that she’d literally turned to stone due to the use of the orogeny, something we saw happen steadily over the course of Book 3 and saw happen with Alabaster in Book 2 as well. It’s ironic because this thing that for so long seemed to be steadily killing her–orogeny turning her to stone–actually turns out to enable her to live forever…and it’s also intimated that in this state she’ll eventually be able to reunite with Alabaster.
Book 3 does a pretty good job of answering the questions the plot has raised at a steady pace, though I will say there’s a fair amount of the logistics I don’t really follow. The amazing thing is that the technical questions I still have–the answer to which are probably hinted at or indicated in ways that escaped my notice–don’t really matter; I followed the general and emotional stakes closely enough to stay invested….
One thing I’m not sure about in the grand scheme is why the Steel/Gray Man stone eaters didn’t want peace with the Earth, and all the ways Steel/Gray Man tried to manipulate both Essun and Nassun into doing something with the Gate and what exactly they wanted them to do with the Gate got convoluted/hard to track. Another is how the orogenes were created out of what happened when Hoa sent the Moon out of orbit; I understood how that created stone eaters and guardians, and guardians were supposed to be in charge of orogenes so I guess orogenes must have somehow been created also…at the end when Nassun is taking control of the Gate by blending magic and orogeny, something Essun has never seen before, Hoa says that’s what he did as a tuner in Syl Anagist.
How orogenes came to exist doesn’t really matter; what matters is the exploration of power dynamics (so to speak) that their existence engenders, primarily that dynamic where the more literally powerful have to be subdued and are hated because of their difference, even when those powers and differences prove beneficial. Nassun’s motivations to go to Corepoint and take control of the Gate in the first place derive from her wanting to end the hateful way orogenes are treated, even if that means ending everything else, and as someone who was hated by her own father enough for him to try to kill her, well…you can see how that might be traumatic. And the way these familial relationship are echoed in the relationship that’s essentially the engine of the whole plot–Earth having lost his child, the Moon, was also nicely done, a parallel that helps reinforce the feeling of the Earth as a conscious living being–the emotional, figurative way the Earth is broken that then leads to its literal breaking in the Rifting, which we finally learn was done, ironically, in order to fix that initial brokenness….
I first read and started writing about this trilogy last summer, and now the title “A World Apart” feels like it applies to our current world as much as Jemisin’s… While primarily reading the narrative’s applicable themes in terms of climate change when I read it last summer, reading it in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the shift in cultural consciousness definitely made me notice some corollaries I hadn’t before about racism and history and slavery. Jemisin pretty much explicitly connects these themes to climate change through the trilogy’s major conceit of the Earth being a living, conscious being in a manner not so dissimilar from humans:
Better the earth, Syl Anagist reasons. Better to enslave a great inanimate object that cannot feel pain and will not object. Better Geoarcanity. But this reasoning is still flawed, because Syl Anagist is ultimately unsustainable. It is parasitic; its hunger for magic grows with every drop it devours. The Earth’s core is not limitless. Eventually, if it takes fifty thousand years, that resource will be exhausted, too. Then everything dies.
The goal of “Geoarcanity” is to directly hook up to the Earth’s core so they can take and control the magic there:
In effect, the Earth will become a massive plutonic engine too, the dynamo that is its core churning forth far more magic than is put into it. From there, the system will become self-perpetuating. Syl Anagist will feed upon the life of the planet itself, forever.
The Earth will be yoked and harnessed like an ox. Or maybe it’s more like Syl Anagist drinking the Earth’s milkshake, since the way this “magic” is being harnessed as a fuel source capable of producing wonders beyond imagining to the primitive civilizations of the Stillness is highly reminiscent of the lengths–or the depths–that we go to to extract oil. The folly of human hubris in thinking we have dominion over the Earth…or being willing to enslave/exploit anything or anyone.
The critical role that history–or more specifically, the myth of history–plays in this exploitation is a major theme of the trilogy that feels especially relevant now in this moment of America trying to come to terms with the role that slavery and exploitation continue to play in our daily lives. We learn that Alabaster conceived of his grand plan to get the Moon back after learning of its disappearance in the first place, which was a piece of history that certain parties apparently wanted to obscure:
Instead, the scholar showed Alabaster his findings. There were more, Alabaster told you, than just three tablets of stonelore, originally. Also, the current Tablet Three was rewritten by Sanze. It was actually rewritten again by Sanze; it had been rewritten several times prior to that. The original Tablet Three spoke of Syl Anagist, you see, and how the Moon was lost. This knowledge, for many reasons, has been deemed unacceptable again and again down the millennia since. No one really wants to face the fact that the world is the way it is because some arrogant, self-absorbed people tried to put a leash on the rusting planet. And no one was ready to accept that the solution to the whole mess was simply to let orogenes live and thrive and do what they were born to do.
You control people by controlling–or suppressing–information. And the information of why the Seasons exist is the carrot driving the narrative of the whole trilogy. Another iteration of controlling/exploiting people by controlling the narrative of their history is behind why the Seasons exist–the loss of the Moon happened because of a plan enacted as vengeance when Hoa and his fellow tuners found out the true story of their history:
Once, after all, I believed I was the finest tool ever created by a great civilization. Now, I have learned that I am a mistake cobbled together by paranoid thieves who were terrified of their own mediocrity.
Kelenli claims this knowledge of their history is necessary for them to better be able to control/access the onyx obelisk, one of the most powerful. Stories can be manipulated as a tool of oppression, or as Hoa shows via the act of narrating the trilogy, as a means of restoring/defining the essence of one’s self…
Syl Anagist at its height is likened to an empire, having spread over most of if not the entire world. We learn they subjugated the Niess people in the course of doing this primarily for two reasons–the Niess were better with magic than they were, and they believed it couldn’t be owned. That these two things are actually related, their belief that it couldn’t be owned the reason they’re better with it, doesn’t seem to have occurred to the Sylanagistines. Magic is likened to the life force, or the essence of life, produced by the Earth itself, and the Niess’ being in harmony with it because they don’t subscribe to the concept of ownership seems highly reminiscent of Europeans taking the land the Native Americans were living on. The legal concept of “ownership” (and smallpox blankets) enabled them to take the land, and it was a concept they then applied to human beings as well.
Enter the node maintainers…Syen’s killing Coru, her own child, at the end of Book 2 to prevent him being taken for a node maintainer was very reminiscent of Beloved, in which a mother killed her daughter to prevent her being taken as a slave, and is then haunted by the ghost of that child. Essun’s loss of her arm at the beginning of Book 3 is also reminiscent of another novel about American slavery, Octavia Butler’s Kindred, whose first line is “I lost an arm on my last trip home,” and in which the loss of that body part is symbolic of the emotional and psychological loss enslaved people suffer.
Jemisin raises another…uncomfortable slavery-related point when the Castrima people finally reach Rennanis:
So Ykka is now coming to terms with a truth you’ve understood since you woke up with a stone arm: To survive in Rennanis, Castrima will need the node maintainers. It will need to take care of them. And when those node maintainers die, Castrima will need to find some way to replace them. No one’s talking about that last part yet. First things first.
There’s an implication that functioning societies essentially need some number of people to be exploited in order to function, and that this sacrifice is ultimately worth it…though Essun does suggest that if she succeeds in the plan of getting the Moon back and stopping the Seasons, the node maintainers might not be necessary anymore–since they’re necessary to maintain the Earth’s volatility that’s a product of the Seasons. So, harmony has to be achieved to negate the need for exploitation, and Essun ultimately succeeds, so Jemisin seems to be ending on a hopeful note…
And reading this both during coronavirus and post-Floyd, it’s tempting to wonder if we’re in the equivalent of a Season…the summation of Jemisin’s work in this New Yorker profile of her published earlier this year on the cusp of Covid inadvertently echoes the idea:
Jemisin, who has a degree in psychology, is interested in power and in systems of subjugation. In her books, the oppressed often possess an enormous capacity for agency—a supernatural ability, even, that their oppressors lack—but they exist in a society that has been engineered to hold them down. Eventually, the world is reordered, often with a cataclysm.
The idea of world-reordered-by-cataclysm also came up in a more recent New Yorker article about an academic’s concept of “Afropessimism”:
But, unlike [bell] hooks, [Frank] Wilderson does not choose to imagine possible futures. The only way to cure the condition of slavery that ails Black people, he says, is “the end of the world.” There will have to be a total end to things—an apocalypse. From civilization’s ashes something truly new might finally grow. How to hasten this final reckoning?
I’d like to think that Jemisin’s vividly rendered and resonant apocalypses could at least be a start…
Prologue: Hoa is going to describe the beginning of the world, in the sprawling city of Syl Anagist, whose people “have mastered the forces of matter and its composition” and which uses the power of the amethyst obelisk in a socket; there are nodes with such obelisks all over the world. Hoa is the one who opened the Obelisk Gate and flung the moon away, ending the world the first time.
1 Essun awakes being carried on a stretcher with the caravan going to Rennanis and learns her arm has turned to stone and that what she did to save them from Rennanis destroyed Castrima’s geode. Hoa eats her stone arm.
2 In the wake of Nassun killing Jija, the other guardians Umber and Nida try to kill Nassun, but she, Schaffa, and Steel fight them off, then flee with the rest of the orogene children after Nassun begs Schaffa to let them come.
Syl Anagist 5: Conductor Pheylen introduces Houwha to a new member of his kind (tuners), Kelenli, who says her orders are to start up the Plutonic Engine, aka the Obelisk Gate, and says she’ll show the others who they really are, and they’ll move toward Revolution.
3 Essun slowly recovers and wants to find Nassun, but Tonkee convinces her it isn’t practical. They camp in a stone forest Essun suspects will be attacked. Ykka has a showdown with some Rennanis prisoners, killing one unwilling to work with the comm, but the Rennanis general Danel is willing to work with them.
4 Schaffa forces the other orogene kids to go off on their own path and resists killing them. Nassun needs to go to Corepoint on the other side of the world, the place where the obelisks come from, to assume control of the Obelisk Gate. Schaffa says the Earth wanted him to find an orogene who could do this. Steel (who’s revealed to be the Gray Man stone eater), will lead the way, but says a price must be paid. (With Rennanis, Steel was trying to manipulate Essun into doing what Nassun now will.)
Syl Anagist 4 Getting closer to the launch of the Engine (which will achieve geoarcanity, “an energetic cycle of infinite efficiency”), there’s some mistrust of Kelenli, who’s the only one who can control the onyx obelisk. She proposes to take them on a tuning mission outside, where they’ve never been, and, excited, they get ready.
5 Essun’s camp is attacked by a commless band that turns out to have an orogene with them–Maxixe (missing legs), from her time at the Fulcrum. (Before she realizes who it is, she uses orogeny to try to fight him knowing it will turn part of her to stone, and she chooses one of her breasts.)
6 Nassun and Schaffa travel to Steel’s deadciv ruin and get there after a month, entering a tunnel to go underground toward Warrant.
Syl Anagist 3 On their mission, Kelenli takes them in a building where there’s a mysterious machine generating more energy than it takes in, and is more efficient than the Plutonic Engine. Kelenli says they built it.
7 Hoa tells Essun the Gray Man stone eater is manipulating Nassun into opening the Obelisk Gate (ostensibly to kill her so no one with such advanced abilities will be a threat to them). He tells her Jija is dead, then takes her through the earth to where he died, where she speaks to a comm member who tells her Nassun left with Schaffa.
8 Nassun figures out the tunnel is in the ruins of a massive old city and that something is sucking the magic from it. Steel is waiting at a station and tells her she has to figure out how to power it; she figures out the area’s damage was caused by an obelisk driving itself into the earth, and then she finds a vine that can pull magic from other things, and she takes it from the sapphire obelisk. A vehicle pulls up and they get in, though Steel says Schaffa shouldn’t come.
Syl Anagist 2 Kelenli takes the tuners to a house and reveals that she was raised alongside Conductor Gallat as an experiment to see if her kind could be human. She then tells their origin story: Sylanagist took land from another people, the Niess, who had more efficient magic and didn’t believe it should be owned. To discredit them, the Sylanagists invented a mythology that the Niess weren’t human, and eventually to uphold it they created Kelenli’s kind to be tools made in the image of their fear. Hoa challenges why Kelenli is telling them this and she says she’s the last Niess lorist and that they need to know this history to be able to master the onyx obelisk.
9 Danel, in the capacity of lorist, wants to go with Essun on her mission to end the Season. What’s left of the comm of Castrima loses a lot of people on a hard trek through the desert.
10 In the vehimal, they enter a hole Nassun is unable to sess the boundaries of. She figures out the vehimal is actually made of the silver. Part of it dissolves to show her the earth they’re passing through, and she sees the core, the source of the corestone in Schaffa’s head, and he starts thrashing in pain, the silver in him intensifying. The Earth speaks to her and she figures out that it is living, generating its own silver, and that it’s angry because people took that silver. She vows to stop the cycle of vengeance. They get through the core and up through the other side and get to Corepoint.
Syl Anagist 1 Conductor Gallat shows the tuners the last thing Kelenli wanted them to see–the fragment of the amethyst in its socket. They see that at its base is the “briar patch” where they’re sent if they get in trouble–bodies kept just alive enough to generate magic for the “sinklines” that help the fragment generate magic.
11 Essun and Ykka and the Castrimans take a node station, since they’ll need node maintainers to keep Rennanis functioning. Lerna points out Essun is pregnant with his baby. They get to Rennanis, which is filled with stone statues of former people from when it was conquered (when Essun used the Obelisk Gate), though the stone eaters have removed a lot to eat later, according to Hoa, and Essun realizes Antimony turned Alabaster into a stone eater.
12 In Corepoint, where there are a lot of stone eaters, Steel directs Nassun (who has to drag Schaffa) to an apartment that does everything with magic. She finds old diaries written by Alabaster about his plan for the rifting to restart the world. She can see the Moon. She thinks about using the gate to turn Schaffa into a stone eater so he can live, but that would mean turning every human into a stone eater. Steel tries to dissuade her based on how long Schaffa would live and how lonely he would be.
Syl Anagist 0 After learning they’ll go to the briar patch after geoarcanity is achieved, Hoa and the other tuners resolve to use the obelisks to destroy Syl Anagist instead of to create the Plutonic Engine for geoarcanity. On launch day, a higher-up reveals they took an iron sample from the core whose magic potency was why they conceived of geoarcanity in the first place. When the tuners start their plan, the Earth fights back, and the energy generated is so powerful that instead of sending it back into the Earth, which would destroy all humanity, Hoa aims it at the Moon, knocking it from its orbit. The Earth turns them to stone eaters as retribution, and as retribution against the higher-ups who were actually manipulating them into the geoarcanity plan, implants them with the iron bits from the core that will bend them to Earth’s will (creating the guardians), and the Seasons begin.
13 Hoa takes Essun and several others through the earth to Corepoint, but on the way they’re attacked by other stone eaters who don’t want peace, and Lerna dies. Nassun has summoned twenty-seven obelisks to use as a spare key to open the Obelisk Gate. Schaffa is up and moving and goes down to Warrant below Corepoint, where guardians are hibernating in cells. Nassun finds him in a wire chair, his core stone being mechanically removed, then sesses his magic is fading and he’s dying. Then Nassun runs into Essun.
14 Nassun determines to open the Gate to turn everyone to stone eaters. Essun tries to stop her by using a network of magic taken from the sleeping guardians (killing them) to summon the onyx obelisk, and they have an epic power struggle. Essun realizes she’s going to have to give up on getting the Moon back if Nassun is going to live. Once Essun has turned fully to stone, Nassun chooses to use the Gate to get the Moon back like Essun wanted.
Coda: Schaffa eventually dies and Nassun and the others elect to go to Rennanis. After the battle with her mother, Nassun’s hand turned to stone and she can’t do orogeny anymore. Hoa turns Essun into a stone eater, and he has been telling her this entire story for her to retain her sense of self in her new state.