Breaking Open the Past: A Review of N.K. Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate

The Obelisk Gate (2016)
Written by: N.K. Jemisin
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 448 (Trade Paperback)
Series: Book 2 of The Broken Earth
Publisher: Orbit

Why I Chose It: The Fifth Season was a book I admired and respected, but didn’t really love. I got off on the wrong foot, anticipating Syenite, Damaya, and Essun’s meeting — there are too few fantasy books with multiple female main characters. As readers of The Fifth Season know that anticipation was doomed. I often felt like Essun was at the mercy of the plot, tossed this way and that, hopelessly reactive to the things happening to her. I wasn’t emotionally involved in the book as much as I normally like. There were things I loved about The Fifth Season — world-building (gorgeous, detailed, complicated), the characters (even numbed Essun), the great writing, and the shape of the plot slowly forming around the characters.

So when Speculative Chic’s Nebula read came around, naturally I pounced on the opportunity to read the second book: The Obelisk Gate.

The premise:

This is the way the world ends, for the last time.

The season of endings grows darker, as civilization fades into the long cold night.

Essun — once Damaya, once Syenite, now avenger — has found shelter, but not her daughter. Instead there is Alabaster Tenring, destroyer of the world, with a request. But if Essun does what he asks, it would seal the fate of the Stillness forever.

Far away, her daughter Nassun is growing in power – and her choices will break the world.

Spoilers below for the first book, and mild ones for the second book.


Discussion: It’s often said that book 2 in a trilogy is usually the weakest. I didn’t find any weakness here.

Where I wasn’t emotionally engaged with The Fifth Season until the ending segment, The Obelisk Gate swept me up right away. Essun is interacting with people instead of reacting — and interacting in wonderful, world-changing ways.

When we last saw Essun she had settled uneasily into Castrima, reunited with Alabaster, and working with other orogenes for the first time since she was part of the Fulcrum. Now, she’s part of a fragile society — trying to keep the community safe from the massing outside enemies, and keep the community from turning on the orogenes within it. She’s learning about the history of the planet, the history of the earthquakes, and how, potentially, they could be stopped for good.

Where the first book made me really side-eye the “fantasy” label — everything presented in The Fifth Season could be an advanced but debased science fiction — The Obelisk Gate joyfully throws real magic onto the page — both personal and mythic — as well as the science fictional biological adaptations.

And where The Fifth Season deprived me of multiple female protagonists, The Obelisk Gate doesn’t. There are two protagonists in this book. Essun, of course, learning that she’s only scratched the surface of orogeny. And delightfully, we get the POV of Nassun, Essun’s daughter.

Jemisin did a great thing with Nassun here. In The Fifth Season, Essun’s derailed quest to find her daughter, abducted by her murdering father, creates a certain expectation of what Nassun will be like — a potential victim, lost and scared, waiting for her mother to save her. Here, in The Obelisk Gate, we get a good look at Nassun, and she’s a beautifully drawn character — resentful of her mother, fond of her father, and able to manipulate him into not killing her straight off. Instead, he propels them northward, ever northward chasing a community that supposedly has a “cure” for orogeny.

The need for survival drives Nassun to develop her abilities to read people and her orogeny. I like the way that Jemisin writes these family relationships. It’s easy to say Jija is a terrible human being for beating his son to death (which he is!), but it’s also fascinating that Jemisin doesn’t take the easy route. Nassun’s bond has always been with her father, not her mother, not her toddler brother who was primarily an irritant to her.

Nassun also gets to show off an entirely different side of orogeny — the more magical side. She intuits and uses what her mother is only beginning to even realize exists, and she has a surprising ally to train her.

Also, having Nassun loose on the world is wonderful because she’s a brilliant foil to her mother. Essun is utterly cynical — she knows how people will screw you over for a multitude of reasons. Nassun is still learning the lesson. Essun’s spent a lifetime limiting her powers, or keeping it tightly controlled. Nassun’s power is wild and encouraged to stay that way. And I love the sensation that these two women, mother and daughter, may find themselves on opposing sides. There’s conflict waiting to explode into action here in book 3.

There are a lot of interesting characters filling out the rest of the book. Ykka, the orogene leader of Castrima is a vibrant personality, even with Essun sucking all the air out of the room. Alabaster, of course, continues to be both damaged and plotting ways to change the world. Schaffa, Essun’s brutal Guardian, returns and has undergone a sea change. He’s fascinating. But my favorite side characters have to be the Stone-Eaters, who get their turn in the spotlight.

The whole book was fascinating.

In conclusion: The Fifth Season felt entirely like set-up, albeit delightful setup. The Obelisk Gate continues to set up coming conflict as well, but there’s a lot more direct action. Plus, we get a wonderful scene where Essun shows the reader exactly what a properly trained, newly enlightened orogene is capable of doing. If you liked the first book, you’ve probably already read this one. If you haven’t read it, I’ll recommend both of them, even with the slow, passive pacing of the first one. There’s a lot of really glorious world-building and character happening here. The Fifth Season won the Hugo. The Obelisk Gate being up for a Nebula award is no surprise.  It’s well worth the nomination.

I’ll be pre-ordering book 3 because I can’t wait to see how this all plays out.

4 Comments

  • Nancy O'Toole Meservier April 20, 2017 at 6:09 pm

    Glad you enjoyed this one more then the first! I really dug this one, with all of it’s morally complex characters, and unique world building.

    Not a light, happy read by any stretch of the imagination though.

    Reply
    • Lane Robins April 21, 2017 at 12:09 pm

      Yeah, in some ways this one is grimmer than the first? Except, the people are doing things, so it felt better to me than the first one. In Fifth Season,Syenite and Damaya’s parts are hard–they’re all at someone else’s mercy for so much of their story; their lives seem utterly not their own. And Essun of course is traumatized. Here, the stakes are no less high, but they’re more free? I mean, I think you are meant to compare Nassun’s life with the Guardian to Damaya’s, and see how things have changed.

      Reply
  • Shara White April 20, 2017 at 10:14 pm

    This one is on my Kindle, but I just haven’t read it yet. I do look forward to it, though!

    Reply
    • Lane Robins April 21, 2017 at 12:19 pm

      You’ll like it! I admit to being a little muddled by the end by the various sides. And as per usual, I got one wrong thing in my head that had to be shaken loose–the penalties of having a brain designed to find patterns: it makes them when they don’t exist.

      Reply

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