In a very rare move for me, I picked up The Obelisk Gate on my visit to the library after reading The Fifth Season. N.K. Jemisin’s sequel picks up where it leaves off, with a little backtracking to fill in Nassun’s story. Short review? If you liked the first book, you’ll like this one. The mysteries of this world deepen, the characters grow and both gain and lose. Longer review? Well, keep reading.
Spoilers for book one but not for this book.
Essun, aka Syenite and Damaya, recently arrived at the concealed comm of Castrima. There she finds her former lover/protégé, Alabaster, who is slowly turning to stone as a side effect of harnessing orogeny in strange and unsanctioned ways. Alabaster is desperate to teach Essun enough for her to finish what he tried to start. Unfortunately, a combination of the dysfunction in their relationship and Essun’s other involvement in Castrima’s society makes progress difficult. Meanwhile, far to the south, Essun’s daughter Nassun has been recruited by the former Guardian Schaffa, who is not at all right in the head.
The central question of The Obelisk Gate is this: whose side are you on? The problem, as Essun soon discovers, is that it’s really hard to see what the sides are, let alone what side you’re standing on.
Mad props to Jemisin for not giving us easy answers. Some burning questions one might have after The Fifth Season include whether this is a future version of Earth. Certainly it’s possible. But does it matter? Absolutely not. It doesn’t matter if orogeny and its related phenomena are magic or sufficiently-advanced science or whatever. Jemisin sweeps aside this curiosity in favour of a far more pressing issue: power.
As I opined in my review of the first book, power and who has it is the primary axis around which this story revolves. Essun’s power dwarfs that of the orogenes in Castrima, even the feral Ykka who has just barely held things together to this point. Her power is such that Alabaster thinks she is his only viable successor. Her power is such that a stone eater, Hoa, has chosen to protect and elevate her as his champion. Her power is such that, as Essun comes to realize over the course of this book, although she will always be a pawn in some ways, she can also make a lot of choices for herself.
A similar, slightly more scoped version of this narrative happens with Essun’s daughter. While it seems like Schaffa has the power, as a Guardian (or something of that ilk), Nassun is special. She has inherited Essun’s innate talents (and perhaps, with enough experience, might even exceed her mother’s abilities). So, like Essun, other powers want to co-opt, coerce, or otherwise influence her. But Nassun (who is only 10!) has some ideas of her own. I find it very interesting, the way Jemisin uses this nested mother-daughter arc, with both women being manipulated while they simultaneously explore their abilities and redefine their goals.
The Obelisk Gate cements this series as a type of fantasy that I only sometimes enjoy, but when I do, I love it. I’m talking about fantasy series that are largely character-driven and less concerned with the war between good and evil than they are with how much a single person can fuck it up. There is this backdrop of a grand war between the “evil” Earth and … others. But that’s not really the story here. The story here is about a small number of people struggling against literally epochal forces, and the realization that while it is impossible for a single human or group of humans to survive such forces, even the biggest rocks can be moved by the application of a smaller force at the right fulcrum.