Review: The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin

The Obelisk Gate is the second part of N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, set in alternative world known ironically as the Stillness. Ironic because every now and then the continent is racked by catastrophic geological events (known as Fifth Seasons) which drive the human population into survivalist mode. Some of the humans have a geological power, known as orogeny, which is illegal except for an elite force called the Fulcrum. Elsewhere “roggas”, as they are derogatively called in a discomfiting allusion to the treatment of Black people, are murdered, enslaved, and generally treated like shit.

To recap: in the first book in this trilogy, a man named Alabaster rent apart the continent in an attempt to break this cycle of racism and mistreatment, causing the season to end all seasons.

Meanwhile the novel followed three women, Damaya, Syenite, and Essun, who at the end are revealed to be the same person at different ages. Essun’s son was murdered by her rogga-phobic husband, who also kidnapped her daughter before the season started. We left Essun joining an underground community in a geode and reuniting with Alabaster, who she knew a lifetime and a different person ago. Alabaster mysteriously alludes to something called a ‘moon’ as a solution to the continent’s predicament.

The Obelisk Gate picks up exactly where the previous novel left off. Rather than the three Essuns, we are quickly introduced to the perspectives of two others, Nassun, Essun’s missing 11-year old daughter, and Schaffa, the man who trained and tortured Essun, and who should be dead after she destroyed his ship in the previous book.

In The Obelisk Gate, we find out a lot more about the world and how it operates. Essun is in the underground community of Castrima, learning how to catch the moon and generally how to trust people again. Nassun ends up with the mysteriously changed Schaffa, learning about her own powers, but for good or evil we’re yet to be sure.

In fact there’s still a lot left up in the air as to the big picture. Alabaster seems like a good guy, but he’s also responsible for mass murder-extinction, and now he’s roped in Essun is to finish the job. Nassun is coming around to the same project, but from a different side, and Schaffa just seems, well, conflicted. And standing around in all this are the human-statue stone eaters, who seem divided on what should happen to the Earth. It’s all rather mysterious, but not unpleasantly so.

More compelling are the new things we find about this world. Orogeny is not the only mysterious power at play: there’s also “magic”, something derived from life. We find out more about the floating gemstones known as obelisks, and the civilisation that created them (causing the moon to wander away from the earth and starting the seasons while they were at it). There’s a war going on, between the Earth and the things that live on it. This book deepens the mythology of the world while its characters are moving into place for what presumably will be some kind of climactic confrontation.

As in The Fifth Season, I loved the world of the Stillness and its magic, and how it bends geological concepts into a compelling mythology.

The Obelisk Gate also brings the trilogy’s racial allusions even more to the fore, particularly through Essun’s broken family and Nassun’s reckoning with who she is. It is heartbreaking, rage-inducing stuff, and a brutal grounding in our world that stops the story spinning off into space like a wayward moon.

The novel continues the jaunty storytelling of the previous instalment, although now we know it’s Hoa, Essun’s attached stone eater, who is doing the telling. There’s less play with perspective but even so this is a fast-paced, page-turning read. 

Gay rating: 2/5 for several queer characters, although it lacks the hilarious “two-and-a-half-some” of the first book. 

The Obelisk Gate is published by Orbit. 

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