The Obelisk Gate

by N.K. Jemisin

Cover image

Series: The Broken Earth #2
Publisher: Orbit
Copyright: August 2016
ISBN: 0-316-22928-8
Format: Kindle
Pages: 448

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The Obelisk Gate is the sequel to The Fifth Season and picks up right where it left off. This is not a series to read out of order.

The complexity of The Fifth Season's three entwined stories narrows down to two here, which stay mostly distinct. One follows Essun, who found at least a temporary refuge at the end of the previous book and now is split between learning a new community and learning more about the nature of the world and orogeny. The second follows Essun's daughter, whose fate had been left a mystery in the first book. This is the middle book of a trilogy, and it's arguably less packed with major events than the first book, but the echoing ramifications of those events are vast and provide plenty to fill a novel. The Obelisk Gate never felt slow. The space between major events is filled with emotional processing and revelations about the (excellent) underlying world-building.

We do finally learn at least something about the stone-eaters, although many of the details remain murky. We also learn something about Alabaster's goals, which were the constant but mysterious undercurrent of the first book. Mixed with this is the nature of the Guardians (still not quite explicit, but much clearer now than before), the purpose of the obelisks, something of the history that made this world such a hostile place, and the underlying nature of orogeny.

The last might be a touch disappointing to some readers (I admit it was a touch disappointing to me). There are enough glimmers of forgotten technology and alternative explanations that I was wondering if Jemisin was setting up a quasi-technological explanation for orogeny. This book makes it firmly clear that she's not: this is a fantasy, and it involves magic. I have a soft spot in my heart for apparent magic that's some form of technology, so I was a bit sad, but I do appreciate the clarity. The Obelisk Gate is far more open with details and underlying systems (largely because Essun is learning more), which provides a lot of meat for the reader to dig into and understand. And it remains a magitech world that creates artifacts with that magic and uses them (or, more accurately, used them) to build advanced civilizations. I still see some potential pitfalls for the third book, depending on how Jemisin reconciles this background with one quasi-spiritual force she's introduced, but the world building has been so good that I have high hopes those pitfalls will be avoided.

The world-building is not the best part of this book, though. That's the characters, and specifically the characters' emotions. Jemisin manages the feat of both giving protagonists enough agency that the story doesn't feel helpless while still capturing the submerged rage and cautious suspicion that develops when the world is not on your side. As with the first book of this series, Jemisin captures the nuances, variations, and consequences of anger in a way that makes most of fiction feel shallow.

I realized, while reading this book, that so many action-oriented and plot-driven novels show anger in only two ways, which I'll call "HULK SMASH!" and "dark side" anger. The first is the righteous anger when the protagonist has finally had enough, taps some heretofore unknown reservoir of power, and brings the hurt to people who greatly deserved it. The second is the Star Wars cliche: anger that leads to hate and suffering, which the protagonist has to learn to control and the villain gives into. I hadn't realized how rarely one sees any other type of anger until Jemisin so vividly showed me the vast range of human reaction that this dichotomy leaves out.

The most obvious missing piece is that both of those modes of anger are active and empowered. Both are the anger of someone who can change the world. The argument between them is whether anger changes the world in a good way or a bad way, but the ability of the angry person to act on that anger and for that anger to be respected in some way by the world is left unquestioned. One might, rarely, see helpless anger, but it's usually just the build-up to a "HULK SMASH!" moment (or, sometimes, leads to a depressing sort of futility that makes me not want to read the book at all).

The Obelisk Gate felt like a vast opening-up of emotional depth that has a more complicated relationship to power: hard-earned bitterness that brings necessary caution, angry cynicism that's sometimes wrong but sometimes right, controlled anger, anger redirected as energy into other actions, anger that flares and subsides but doesn't disappear. Anger that one has to live with, and work around, and understand, instead of getting an easy catharsis. Anger with tradeoffs and sacrifices that the character makes consciously, affected by emotion but not driven by it. There is a moment in this book where one character experiences anger as an overwhelming wave of tiredness, a sharp realization that they're just so utterly done with being angry all the time, where the emotion suddenly shifts into something more introspective. It was a beautifully-captured moment of character depth that I don't remember seeing in another book.

This may sound like it would be depressing and exhausting to read, but at least for me it wasn't at all. I didn't feel like I was drowning in negative emotions — largely, I think, because Jemisin is so good at giving her characters agency without having the world give it to them by default. The protagonists are self-aware. They know what they're angry about, they know when anger can be useful and when it isn't, and they know how to guide it and live with it. It feels more empowering because it has to be fought for, carved out of a hostile world, earned with knowledge and practice and stubborn determination. Particularly in Essun, Jemisin is writing an adult whose life is full of joys and miseries, who doesn't forget her emotions but also isn't controlled by them, and who doesn't have the luxury of either being swept away by anger or reaching some zen state of unperturbed calm.

I think one key to how Jemisin pulls this off is the second-person perspective used for Essun's part of the book (and carried over into the other strand, which has the same narrator but a different perspective since this story is being told to Essun). That's another surprise, since normally this style strikes me as affected and artificial, but here it serves the vital purpose of giving the reader a bit of additional distance from Essun's emotions. Following an emotionally calmer retelling of someone else's perspective on Essun made it easier to admire what Jemisin is doing with the nuances of anger without getting too caught up in it.

It helps considerably that the second-person perspective here has a solid in-story justification (not explicitly explained here, but reasonably obvious by the end of the book), and is not simply a gimmick. The answers to who is telling this story and why they're telling it to a protagonist inside the story are important, intriguing, and relevant.

This series is doing something very special, and I'm glad I stuck to it through the confusing and difficult parts in the first book. There's a reason why every book in it was nominated for the Hugo and The Obelisk Gate won in 2017 (and The Fifth Season in 2016). Despite being the middle book of a trilogy, and therefore still leaving unresolved questions, this book was even better than The Fifth Season, which already set a high bar. This is very skillful and very original work and well worth the investment of time (and emotion).

Followed by The Stone Sky.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2018-06-04

Last spun 2018-10-23 from thread modified 2018-06-05