The Obelisk Gate: The weight of history crushes the present

Readers’ average rating:

Reposting to include Stuart’s new review:

The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin science fiction book reviewsThe Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin

The Obelisk Gate is the second in N.K. Jemisin’s BROKEN EARTH trilogy and the follow-up to her Hugo Award-winning The Fifth Season; expectations were understandably high for this installment, which promises to shed a little more light on The Stillness and the qualities that make its geology and its people so unique. The Obelisk Gate is compulsively readable, filled with characters and circumstances that will transfix the reader’s attention, and effectively picks up right where The Fifth Season ends with very little exposition, so readers should plan to read this series in chronological order.

The Fifth Season was told through three viewpoints: the child Damaya; Syenite the Fulcrum representative; and “you,” Essun, a crèche-teacher and mother fleeing the world-changing effects of a giant rent in the earth’s crust. In The Obelisk Gate, “I” continues to tell Essun’s story among the people taking shelter in Castrima to “you,” reveals Nassun’s strange journey southward after she and her father Jija fled Tirimo, and gives two too-brief chapters to Schaffa, the Fulcrum Guardian of both Damaya and Syenite. Instead of weaving back and forth through the events and changing identities of a single life, “I” largely focuses on moving forward as Essun and Nassun explore their individual previously unknown and untapped potentials, with very few diversions into the past. Meanwhile, the continent’s climate continues to deteriorate, putting all of human existence on the edge of a knife, and stone eaters have been sighted in greater numbers, working toward their own mysterious purposes.

Essun, with marginal help or direction from Alabaster, is given very little time to suss out how to accomplish an impossibly difficult task involving the mysterious obelisks floating through the sky, while supplies in the underground geode-city of Castrima dwindle and settlements overhead fight over who gets to determine the course of future societies. Nassun, fully aware of how dangerous her father is (having walked in just as he finished murdering her little brother Uche), must navigate safe passage through his darkest moods and prejudices while uncovering her orogenic gifts. Jemisin’s explorations of orogeny and the obelisks are brilliantly executed, revealing unforeseen possibilities and casting new light not only on The Obelisk Gate but on events in The Fifth Season as well. The glimpses we’re given into Schaffa’s mind are so fascinating that I can’t help but wish for more insight into his past, the overall organization of the Guardians, and what drives him now that the Stillness has been shattered and the Yumenes Fulcrum has been obliterated.

Instead we see Schaffa through Nassun’s eyes, as we saw him through Damaya’s and yet altogether different, and Jemisin does an amazing job of writing a small child — Nassun is no more than ten years old — who is simultaneously precocious and immature, who is both blessed and cursed with unimaginable talent, and whose mother expressed love through cruelty because it was the only way she knew how to keep her daughter safe from herself and the people who will fear her. The Obelisk Gate’s dedication, “To those who have no choice but to prepare their children for the battlefield,” is an especially apt one. In The Fifth Season, Guardians like Schaffa repeatedly reassured Fulcrum students that they were loved; otherwise the hands which wounded a student’s body would simply kill outright. Likewise, Essun loves her children, but proves time and time again that ensuring a loved one’s survival can come at terrible cost. Still, if an orogene child can muster enough self-control not to kill every living thing within a five-kilometer radius in retribution for hurt feelings or broken bones, there’s a fractured sort of logic which asks if that might not seem like a fair trade.

Additionally, Jemisin doesn’t shy away from social commentary or difficult subjects at any point. The BROKEN EARTH books have, thus far, tackled prejudice on every imaginable level, and readers may be forced to confront parts of themselves that are deeply uncomfortable. But orogenes must suffer a lifetime of indignities, ranging from the casual use of “rogga” as a hateful slur all the way to outright torture and death over being born different from what society considers acceptable, which isn’t a far cry from real-life indignities and harm experienced by people every day. Jemisin thoroughly folds this allegory into The Obelisk Gate, to the point where it’s impossible to look away.

She also incorporates an impressive level of science into her fiction, providing something for anyone who nerds out over climatology, geology or mineralogy, plate tectonics, astronomy, engineering, human behavior, and so much more. There were times when I wasn’t sure if the science was real or fabricated, because Jemisin so seamlessly blends what must have been exhaustive research into her prose, and I genuinely didn’t care. Everything about these books feels immediate and tangible, utterly matter-of-fact, as though these events already happened or will someday occur. Objectively, I know it’s a work of fiction, but Jemisin brings this world and its people to life.

There’s much to recommend about The Obelisk Gate — excoriating social commentary, powerful and emotionally devastating prose, flawed and beautiful characters, and so much more. The BROKEN EARTH series has proven to be challenging and rewarding, and I have astronomical hopes for the concluding volume to come. Highly recommended.

~Jana Nyman


The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin science fiction book reviewsComing on the heels of N.K. Jemisin’s Hugo Award for The Fifth Season just last weekend, expectations for the sequel The Obelisk Gate were astronomical throughout SFF fandom. As one of the many readers waiting with bated breath for the follow-up to one the best SFF novels I’ve read in years, I’m sure some were concerned that Jemisin might have trouble living up to the pressure to avoid the dreaded middle book syndrome. But I was strangely certain she would not disappoint.

That is because the world-building, detailed back-story (of which we only get glimpses), powerful and assured narrative voice, and overall mastery of storytelling of The Fifth Season told me that Jemisin has mapped out this entire story ahead of time (whether in her head, on several PC drives, hundreds of pages of hard-written manuscripts, or just chiseled deep in the earth in crystal), and that we are in strong but firm hands here. She knows where this story is going, exactly how to deliver it, what details to reveal, and how the characters will struggle and grow. She also has an excellent collaborator in Robin Miles, who goes beyond narrating the audiobook to being a co-creator of this world. When she reads the words of Jemisin’s characters, she delivers their thoughts and raw emotions with total conviction. This inescapable proximity is aided greatly by Jemisin’s use of the rarely-utilized second-person perspective.

I don’t often wax this enthusiastic about a SFF book because I know that there are so many different tastes out there, but this series is just so damn good I would recommend it to anyone who loves powerful storytelling. And as many have pointed out, the BROKEN EARTH series is a dark and sometimes draining experience, given the hardships and emotional wreckage of the main characters at every turn. Jemisin is not interested in comforting images or situations — she takes on suffering, cruelty, discrimination, and vengeance head-on. And yet the sly irony of the narration provides welcome relief amid the tough going. Somehow I feel like this is what Jemisin might be like in person — unafraid to face up to negative aspects of the modern world, but keeping a strong and ironic attitude that refuses to be cowed.

Moreover, the entire world of the Stillness is an apocalyptic landscape rent by geological violence that mirrors the turmoil of the protagonists’ lives. After the massive, destructive events of Book One, we see the deepening ashes of the fallout, the increasing desperation of the common people pushed to raiding, murder and cannibalism for survival. This world is a ruthless one, after repeated Fifth Seasons that have wrecked and humbled successive human civilizations again and again. Having been beaten down this many times, it’s a wonder that people don’t give up hope completely and throw themselves into steaming fissures in the earth.

The plot picks up IMMEDIATELY after The Fifth Season, so hopefully the details are still fresh in your mind. And if for some unfathomable reason you haven’t read that yet, stop reading this review and get it immediately, because it’s all spoilers ahead. I usually lose track of things after a year’s gap, but I almost immediately fell back under Jemisin’s spell. Essun finds herself in the underground geode city of Castrima, trying to nurse back to health her injured 10-ringer orogene companion Alabaster, who cracked the continent in half and triggered the onset of the most brutal Season to date. He is slowly turning to stone in a particularly gruesome way, but is strangely protected by an inscrutable Stone-eater named Antimony, who quietly monitors him but will not reveal its motivations. The leader of this comm, a tough older woman who is a feral orogene (untrained by the Fulcrum), has an uneasy relationship with the traumatized Essun and bitter Alabaster. Her mission is to keep this comm alive amid the chaos and collapse that surrounds it. We learn much about orogeny, Alabaster’s past, some tantalizing bits about the Stone-eaters (especially a surprise one from Book One), and another hidden power on par with orogeny that infuses all things.

The details of Jemisin’s world are even more impressive in this book. Novels that blend elements of both science fiction and fantasy are hardly uncommon, but the rigor of her creation elevates this to the level at which we must accept it as matter-of-fact. As Jana’s review describes in detail, Jemisin has really done her homework here. It was completely convincing, and incredibly original and compelling to boot.

But the biggest surprise is definitely the development of Essun’s daughter Nassun, who has been kidnapped by her father Jija after he murdered her young brother Uche in a violent reaction after discovering they both were rogga, the derogatory term for orogenes. The troubled relationship of Jija, who cannot condone even the whiff of contamination (in his eyes) from such powers, and the immature little girl Nassun, who has great powers but still just wants her father to love her as before, is explored in great depth. When the two encounter a mysterious but deadly traveler on the road, audiobook listeners will immediately recognize him as the Guardian Schaffa from Book One, since Robin Miles gives him a warm but menacing Scottish accent. His relationship with Nassun becomes the centerpiece of this story. Schaffa can be utterly ruthless one second, slaughtering those he considers obstacles, and then patting Nassun on the head the next like a kindly father-figure. His story is also one that Jemisin carefully teases us with, to great effect.

As we learn more about the Guardians’ mission at the onset of a new Season, the rivalries among rival factions, their connection with the Fulcrum and Yumenes, and the complications caused by the mysterious Stone-eaters, and revelations about the ubiquitous obelisks of a past age that quietly float in the sky, we can see an epic third movement coming into view. It is a very complex story, but so firmly grounded in human suffering that it strikes the perfect balance. The ending is powerful and gut-wrenching. Despite the dark tone, The Obelisk Gate represents a worthy follow-up to The Fifth Season, and has set the stage for the epic final act. Assuming that Jemisin can deliver a conclusion as satisfying and masterful as the first two installments, it’s not too bold to claim this may become one of the best SF-fantasy works of the last decade or two.

~Stuart Starosta

Published August 16, 2016. 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.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but recently settled in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are Bradbury, James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, and Philip Pullman.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff since March 2015, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he has lived in Tokyo, Japan for the last 10 years with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to fill in all the gaps in his reading of classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners, as well as David Pringle's 100 Best SF and Fantasy Novels, before moving back to reading newer books. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Walter Jon Williams, N.K. Jemisin, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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4 comments

  1. Really looking forward to getting this one and settling down with it. She really is entering Octavia Butler territory, creating situations that transcend current ethics and morality, and making us, along with the characters, develop ethical systems, even if they are uncomfortable.

    Thanks for this insightful review, Jana.

    • It’s a bold thing to say, but I suspect you may like this one even more than the first. Jemisin is absolutely taking on Butler’s mantle and making it her own, reader’s comfort level be damned. (And I’m glad!)

      Looking forward to reading your thoughts — there’s so much I want to discuss with you!

  2. Jana and Marion, I am so ecstatic that N.K. Jemisin got the Hugo Award for The Fifth Season – it was absolutely amazing, and the sequel The Obelisk Gate is equally great. The Hugo Award reaffirmed that the SFF community embraces diversity AND quality writing – it was well-deserved. Now we have to wait till next year for the final installment, arrrggh!

    • Wasn’t that wonderful news? :) And I’m torn between wanting Jemisin to take her time with the third novel so that it’s absolutely what she wants…and wanting to read it tomorrow. Better yet, today!

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