The Obelisk Gate

Alright, it’s taken me months to get to reading this sequel. I have no excuse other than being distracted by other books and the inevitably-too-fast passing of time. Anyways, here we are. And what a sequel it is!

Now, let me warn you that there are likely (read: definitely) going to be spoilers for the The Fifth Season in this review. I shouldn’t be spoiling anything for this book, but I’m gonna just assume that you’ll only read this review super closely if you’ve already read the first book (or at least know what it’s about). Otherwise, just skip to the last paragraph for my summed up/closing thoughts.

The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin


“We’re the problem, you see – people.”

As we figured out towards the end of the first book, our three narrators, Syenite, Damaya, and “you,” all turned out to be the same person, just at different times in their life! Say what?! That was awesome and totally unexpected. Now that we know that, this book continues from the “present” day POV, that of Essun, or “you,” as it’s still written in second person. In addition, Nassun, the daughter that “you” are rushing after to find and save, takes up a spot as narrator. And there is a third narrator added, labeled “Interlude” and I shan’t give away who it is, but you do find out/figure it out by the end of the novel. When we left Essun, she and Hoa had been welcomed into Castrima, the comm located in an underground geode that (more or less) welcomes and lives alongside stone eaters and orogenes, and had found Alabaster there as well! As the Season progresses and conflicts of survival, like lack of food stores, environmental changes, and attacks from other comms affect the members of Castrima, Essun assists in dealing with those, as well as learning more about the history and cause of the Seasons from Alabaster. And as she realizes that he is truly dying, she also learns that she must finish the work he started to basically bring down/reset the world as they know it. At the same time Nassun is found by enemies old and new and reborn…and finds that there is more to orogeny, more bordering on magic, than her mother ever let on/taught her. And so, separately but simultaneously, both mother and daughter learn more about how to control/use the obelisks (and what their real purpose is).

In my review for the first book, I really focused on the fact that Jemisin drops us smack into the middle of a world that we know nothing about without a single lifeline. It took me basically the entirety of the novel to feel like I had a reasonable grasp on what was happening. It was just that the world-building was SO intricate and immersive and impressive, but the effort required of me as the reader was immense. Basically, all that remains true in this second installation, as far as the scope and depth of the world-building. However, there was a major difference – just within the first quarter-ish of the second novel, I already felt like my feet were better planted in this world (and that includes everything I forgot in the months since I finished the first book). As Essun questions Alabaster to learn more, and Nassun questions her own “teacher,” I finally felt like I was up to speed with what everyone already knows and was starting to learn what no one knows yet, alongside our protagonists. And what a difference that made for the effort on my part while reading. I was able to let go and just fall into/enjoy this second book much more than I was ever able to in the first. Now, that’s not to say that things got simple or straightforward, oh no. They were just as simultaneously technical and abstract as ever (nothing intuitive about it), but I just felt like I understood it all so much better (dare I say easier? …at the very least, faster).

Along with this, now that the background and stage are more or less “set up,” if you will, the development of the plot was able to begin in earnest. Now, let me not mislead you. At no point do things speed ahead. This is a very methodical unfolding, with occasional jumps in action, and it’s clear that the major “events” are still to come (as with any trilogy, those will come in the final book). But you can absolutely start to feel the build as we move towards that climax. In that respect, this is a very typical middle/bridge novel. That includes a lot of character development in particular. Once you realize that the majority of the character building in book one was for the same character, just over time, (well, and Alabaster) you realize while reading this one that, naturally, more players needed to be introduced/explored. And we get that! Hoa, for one, gets a lot more exploration, along with Nassun, Ykka, Nassun’s “teacher,” a few other side characters, and, naturally, a bit more from Essun herself. In addition, the interpersonal interactions and small unit politics are developed much more, and more widely.

As far as one of the other major things that struck me in the first book, the way this “alternate Earth” has hierarchies between Stills (non-orogenes), orogenes, Fulcrum-trained orogenes, etc. that reflect and comment so strongly on race/socioeconomic in our own world, this second book continues in that vein perfectly. We are introduced to a comm, Castrima, where ostensibly, those hierarchies and prejudices are not “seen,” where everyone is an equal member of the society. And yet…Essun stills wants to teach the young orogenes how to fight back, when the Stills inevitably turn on them. And yet…when things get ugly, the orogene lives become less important. And so we see the way Jemisin moves on from calling out outright racism and moves into calling out structural racism as well. It’s smooth and subtle in its natural momentum, but still incredibly clear in it’s message. Just, extraordinary writing. In addition, one of my favorite new dimensions that is addressed is the “system” (the Fulcrum-based training, like Essun and Alabaster) versus the outside the system (self/naturally-taught, like Nassun and Ykka). I LOVE the perspective that not every person can/should be taught the same things in the same way because that stifles both creativity and growth. This is such a beautiful commentary on the pitfalls of formalized education the way it currently exists (I speak from my own experience, which is the US public school system). Molding all learners to one method or understanding is both unrealistic and small-minded – and just think of everything we are losing through all that limitation and pigeon-holing. As a side note, the reasons for the limitation on Essun and Alabaster, the fear and need for control it was built on, is horrific in its own way. Anyways, as an educator, I loved this message about learning/teaching.

If you skipped the rest of review in fear of spoilers, welcome back! To sum up, this novel was an excellently developed continuation of the complex story we began in book one. The character and interpersonal relationship growth were really in focus, as well as a slow build in information-gathering and action-development to bridge us between the build of the story in the first novel and the conclusion that we’ll get in the third. Although there was nothing about this novel that would be considered fast (so don’t expect to need to finish in one sitting), it was just as absorbing and immersive as the first. The themes of power and control and subjugation are continued, but put in the context of a greater, eons long conflict between people and the Earth that began the Seasons and may now, finally, be coming to a head. I’m definitely ready to see how everything ends!

And of course, please enjoy some passages that really stood out to me…there are many, as Jemisin is truly an author of unmatched talent:

“…you know better than to trust her just because she’s Your People. You should give her a chance because she’s Your People, though.”

“Life cannot exist without the Earth. Yet there is a not-insubstantial chance that life will win its war, and destroy the Earth. We’ve come close a few times.” (DAMN, that’s deep.)

“This is just how life is supposed to be: terrible and brief and ending in – if you’re lucky – oblivion.”

“But just because you can’t see or understand a thing doesn’t mean it can’t hurt you.”

“…being useful to others is not the same thing as being equal.”

“You just want your life to matter.”

“If she hurts him because she loves him, is that still hurt? If she hurts him a lot now so that he will hurt less later, does that make her a terrible person?”

“The way of the world isn’t the strong devouring the weak, but the weak deceiving and poisoning and whispering in the ears of the strong until they become weak, too.”

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