Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin
Published August 18, 2016
I finished my re-read of Obelisk Gate, the second book in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, on schedule as the last book in my Reading the Hugos challenge, but I’ve been dragging my feet on writing a review for it, not because I didn’t love it (I did!) but because I’ve been exhausted this week and wanted to have the time to do it justice in review form. I considered rushing home last night and trying to write something up before the awards were announced Friday evening but was too tired to ultimately do it. The upside is that it means I get to write this review with the knowledge that for the second year in a row N.K. Jemisin has won the Hugo Award for Best Novel! It really is a deserving series, imho, her finest works of fiction (that I’ve read) to date, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the final book in the trilogy later this month. Congratulations to N.K. Jemisin!
Obelisk Gate is set in a world called the Stillness, a single supercontinent where Earthquakes occur frequently and the aftermath every few centuries results in a “Fifth Season”. Seasons are sporadic climate events which cause flora and fauna become hostile, changing their behaviour to fit the dangerous atmosphere, a time when the sky turns ashy, and human “comms” declare martial law. Seasons also inhibit civilization from ever evolving beyond a certain point. In fact, the world has only lasted this long because of orogenes, a marginalized group of people (also known by the slur “rogga”) born with the ability to manipulate thermodynamics, who can quell shakes. But orogenes are an oppressed minority, killed by those who don’t understand, or kept in check by Guardians of the Fulcrum, who can resist their power and control orogenes through fear.
Picking up right where its predecessor left off, in mid-conversation nonetheless, Obelisk Gate continues the story of Essun and her daughter Nassun. Having learned that the Earth is a) alive and b) angry, Essun learns that her old friend Alabaster, a powerful orogene, has a plan to placate Evil Earth and eliminate Seasons forever, and that he needs her help to do it. But as the Season encroaches, can she learn fast enough from Alabaster’s cryptic instructions or will they seal the fate of the world? In perhaps the more heartbreaking of the two narratives, we also backtrack to Nassun and her struggle for acceptance by her bigoted father and by the world at large.
Obelisk Gate isn’t so much a better book than The Fifth Season, as it is a worthy sequel with the advantage of reader familiarity. In her first book of this trilogy, Jemisin creates a world so different from our own and rich with detail that it’s a lot to take in. Obelisk Gate has a head start because it can assume the reader is already familiar with the mechanics and prejudices of the world from the first book in the series. This allows for an easier transition that builds on the exquisite world-building and the fully developed but flawed characters introduced in The Fifth Season to continue Essun’s story.
While its predecessor shifted between three non-linear POVs (Damaya, Syenite, and Essun), Obelisk Gate proceeds in a linear fashion, narrowing the focus to one character we’re familiar with, and one who is new to us. I remember initially finding The Fifth Season so jarring partly because Essun’s chapters are written in the second-person, a perspective I don’t think I’ve ever encountered before in published fiction! Much like adjusting to the one gender pronouns in Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series, where all characters including those who are biologically male are addressed as “she” and “her”, the use of second-person in The Fifth Season took some time to get used to. The second-person chapters continue in Obelisk Gate but again, with familiarity it’s an easier read.
Although the book’s setting and the abilities some of its characters exhibit place it firmly in the realm of fantasy, I’ve recommended this series successfully even to those who don’t usually read fantasy. The prose is absolutely gorgeous and the worldbuilding, while complex, is so well thought out and deep that it transcends genre. Many second books suffer from taking a step back from the action, but Obelisk Gate is far from hesitant in its storytelling. The pacing gives the characters time to breathe and develop, but also includes enough action and suspense to keep the reader engaged.
I also really enjoyed these characters. Essun has been so guarded for much of her adult life, and has been through such trauma, that she finds it difficult to connect with others, but Obelisk Gate gives her people to care about, a position in the comm that matters, and a higher purpose. I love her snarky yet caring exchanges with Alabaster, as these two share such a complicated and bitter history but they also need one another. And then there’s Nassun. My heart breaks for Nassun. As her childhood slips away forever when she realizes by calling her bigoted father “Daddy” she can more easily manipulate him to continue to see her as his daughter and not as a “rogga”, and as she falls so quickly into loving another being as a father-figure because she has been so starved of affection from those close to her.
Whether you’re a fan of fantasy novels or not, I really can’t recommend this series highly enough, and if you’re a fan of fantasy and you’ve never read any of Jemisin’s work, well what are you waiting for?! The final book in the series come out this week I believe, and I know it will be an exciting, but bittersweet experience to say goodbye to this series I love.