Book: “The Obelisk Gate” by N.K. Jemisin
Publishing Info: Orbit, August 2016
Where Did I Get this Book: the library!
Book Description: The season of endings grows darker as civilization fades into the long cold night. Alabaster Tenring – madman, world-crusher, savior – has returned with a mission: to train his successor, Essun, and thus seal the fate of the Stillness forever.
It continues with a lost daughter, found by the enemy.
It continues with the obelisks, and an ancient mystery converging on answers at last.
The Stillness is the wall which stands against the flow of tradition, the spark of hope long buried under the thickening ashfall. And it will not be broken.
Previously Reviewed: “The Fifth Season”
Review: “The Obelisk Gate” holds the dubious position of needing to tell the middle of the story. The scene has been set. The characters have been introduced (or, in this case, most of the characters are now realized to be the same person). But we can’t get to the finale yet. Many series in many different media formats have struggled with how to tell this portion of the story. But, as we’ve recently seen with its win of a second consecutive Hugo for the series, “The Obelisk Gate” falls into none of these traps.
And the biggest factor contributing to the avoidance of this “mid series slump” is Jemisin’s decision to double down on her characters. We now have Essun’s full story, knowing her to be the woman at the center of all three storylines in the previous book. With this knowledge, Essun’s struggles to make a life for herself in yet another comm hit that much closer to home. We’ve seen her try and fail, try and fail, always defined and burdened by her own power and the fear and hatred that she and other orogenes inspire in others. Having found Alabaster once again, only to know that she is losing him slowly to strange process in which his body is changing to stone, Essun’s journey in this book is one of self-acceptance. Whether it is wanted or not, Alabaster’s grand mission, to return the Moon to its regular orbit, is falling on her shoulders, the only orogene now living with the power and training to take up this mantle.
Through Essun, and Hoa (our recently discovered narrator and stone eater companion to Essun), the mysteries behind the obelisks, their connection to orogenes, and the history of the long-fought battle between Earth, stone eaters, orogenes, and humans slowly unravels. As I mentioned in the last review, Jemisin is a master at revealing answers to questions slowly and steadily, all too often bringing with these tidbits of information even more questions. This story is not for the impatient. It is for those who wish to bask in an immense, complicated world with a fully-realized, and half-forgotten, history, alongside characters who are often still just as much in the dark as we are.
Further, in this book we are given the added perspectives of Nassun, Essun’s lost daughter, and even a few chapters from Schaffa, the Guardian who tormented and tracked Damaya/Syenite/Essun all those years ago.
Nassun’s story takes us back to the beginning of the first book, with her discovery of her father standing over the body of her little brother whom he had just finished beating to death after discovering his powers. Through Nassun’s eyes, we see a child trying to re-align a world that has fallen into chaos, confusion and fear. To survive, she learns to manipulate those around her (most tragically, her own father), and struggles to understand her own abilities and why she is so hated. Is she a monster? And if she is, is it wrong that she loves what makes her monstrous? Through Nassun, we see what life is like for “undiscovered” roggas, those who must do whatever it takes to simply survive, without the so-called protection of the Folcrum that Damaya/Syenite/Essun grew up within. But Nassun does have Guardian: Schaffa.
But this is not the Schaffa we knew. To survive the reign of destruction that Syenite brought down around her in grief and rage at the loss of her little family so many years ago, Schaffa commits the sin that no Guardian is ever meant to: a closer deal with Evil Earth himself. Through this process, however, Schaffa both loses pieces of himself but also gains a new sense of self through this loss. This new self fights against the horrors that his kind are meant to inflict on the orogenes, and when he meets a young girl who looks achingly familiar, and whose father is in the midst of slowly rejecting her, he takes her under his wing.
This is at true testament of steady, sure-handed characterization, to take a character as hated as Schaffa was in the first book and to make him sympathetic, even a hero (antihero?) in his own way. Through Schaffa, we see the role that the Guardians could or perhaps more importantly, should have played in the lives of their young charges. He teaches and guides Nassun, and, most importantly, provides the one sure place that she feels safety as her complete self.
As I briefly mentioned above, now that Hoa has become a more fully-understood character in his own right, we also begin to unbury the many layers of stone eater culture and history. Surprising no one, it is all much more complicated than anyone had thought. The fight for the future (the fight for whether there will even be a future) is one that involves many factions, all working to gather support for their own cause. There is a reason that powerful orogenes attract stone eaters…
It is almost impossible to review this book as its own work. In many ways, this series is reading like three long chapters in one book. To discuss this story is to discuss the first and to predict the third. And while this presents a challenges for analyzing this book in the traditional sense (with a beginning, middle, and end), it makes for a sort of comfort going into the last book in the series. After all, the first two chapters has been rock solid (ha!), why on earth (ha!) wouldn’t the last? We’ll find out soon enough! And what’s more, I’ll be giving away a copy of “The Stone Sky” alongside my review so keep an eye out for that coming up soon!
Rating 10: Second verse, strong as the first!
Find “The Obelisk Gate” at your library using WorldCat