In 2016 I reviewed the Hugo Award winner for Best Novel, The Fifth Season. After a slow and difficult period of adjustment, due to narrative structure and writing style, this epic fantasy blew my socks off and quickly became one of the best books I read that year. It is an ambitious and dense, but incredibly rewarding novel if one invests the time and effort. The Obelisk Gate is a solid sophomore effort that continues the epic saga of this post-apocalyptic story in a way that promises great things for the series finale.
Since I’m reviewing a sequel, please note that I will spoil some aspects of The Fifth Season and will write this review as if you have already read book 1. If you have not read the brilliant first novel, turn away and go buy the book now! You may read my review here. If you enjoyed the first book and want to know if you should continue the series, read on!
The Obelisk Gate is book 2 of N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy, which I interpret to be a post-apocalyptic scifi-fantasy novel because the world of this series could very well be our world in a distant and very tragic future. The Fifth Season introduced us to the fascinating and bleak world of The Stillness, the continent in which all the action takes place. We got a hint of how the earth is a dynamic character itself, not at all “still” — it’s constantly in motion, shifting landscapes and drastically affecting the lives of its people with seismic upheavals and harsh living conditions. In The Obelisk Gate it becomes even more apparent the planet is alive, in a sense, and that the legends of “Father Earth” are perhaps more than myth.
This book, like the first, heavily focuses on relationships to create tension, drama, and even drive the plot forward. In The Fifth Season we got to see the relationships Syenite/Damaya/Essun made through their journeys over decades and how these relationships affected their lives both superficially and profoundly. The Obelisk Gate takes place over the course of about a year and is split between the perspectives of Essun and her daughter, Nassun, who provides a new and refreshing perspective for readers. As we remember, Nassun was kidnapped by her father (husband to Essun), Jija, who killed his son Uche at the beginning of the first book after discovering Uche was an orogene (someone who can manipulate earth, minerals, thermal energy and so much more). But he spared Nassun’s life and runs away with her to keep her away from Essun, whom Jija now assumes is also an orogene and must therefore avoid at all costs.
The book alternates between chapters telling Essun’s and Nassun’s respective stories. Mother and daughter are miles apart and we quickly get the impression that their reunion will be hard to come by, as Jija is doing his best to drive Nassun away from her mother (both emotionally and physically).
One criticism people had with The Fifth Season was that Essun’s chapters were written in second person POV. Initially, this style of writing is quite jarring, I must admit, especially coupled with the dense world-building and the learning of a new fictional world you have to do. I’ve never been a fan of second-person POV, and this series has certainly not won me over to that narrative style. BUT, eventually you will get used to the style of writing and just enjoy the awesome things Jemisin writes on the page. In the first book, the mystery surrounding Essun’s identity justified the second person POV, but in The Obelisk Gate it really does not serve any creative purpose other than to continue writing Essun’s chapters the same way they were in the first book. Many readers will again be irked by Jemisin’s decision to keep the second person POV “just because,” but we will eventually get over. After a while, I didn’t even notice!
What does The Obelisk Gate have to offer that the first book did not?
Well, it lacks that amazing twist surrounding Essun’s identity that we all loved in The Fifth Season. It also is much smaller in scope, as it only follows 2 characters over the course of a year, as opposed 3 over the span of decades. But what it does provide is a wealth of information on the history, geography, and people of The Stillness (which is incredibly fascinating) and a more nuanced explanation of how orogeny works and the many ways it can be used in practice. We only saw a handful of orogenes in book 1, but in the sequel there are dozens of them! As a result, we see the full power and versatility of orogeny. We’ll get to see the subtle and precise power of orogeny as well as its efficacy in large-scale battles — it’s all very impressive stuff and Jemisin has a hell of a gift for writing intense scenes that show off her magic system.
The community of orogenes who reside in a large and beautiful geode deep underground was one of my favorite new additions to the story. Their “comm” is called Castrima and much of the action during Essun’s chapters takes place here. You’d think not much conflict could happen if our protagonist remains in one place, but that’s far from reality. They’re trying to survive during a Fifth Season, so everyone in the world is ready to fight to the death in the name of self-preservation. But conflict will find them. What Essun and her new friends (I won’t name them, but you’ll like them) must do, is learn to understand each other to ultimately work together to prevent any potential threat to their community.
The Obelisk Gate also introduces a new concept to the magic system, one that makes it clearer that this series blurs the line between science-fiction and fantasy. It’s not exactly one or the other, but both, and I love that! We also learn much more about the obelisks that we’ve seen floating in the sky since the first book. They have remained mysterious for centuries to the people of The Stillness, but in The Obelisk Gate we finally get a concrete clue revealing that the obelisks may be the key to putting an end to the Seasons. Somehow. You will see! 😉
Another great addition to the series is Essun’s daughter, Nassun. She is every bit as interesting as her mother. I always looked forward to her chapters and was glad to see her gradual growth throughout the novel — first her growth in power and ability as an oregene, but eventually her emotional growth as person. You will love Nassun!
I have no doubts that people who enjoyed The Fifth Season will also enjoy The Obelisk Gate. The voice, intensity, complex characters and relationships — everything we liked about the first book is all here presented in new and interesting ways. However, I do believe it falls short of the first book’s greatness. Part of the issue is that The Fifth Season was so novel and innovate in many ways, that it was easier to be impressed by Jemisin’s work. In the sequel, her work is still solid, but loses some of its luster.
Moreover, the pacing is slow the first 100 pages and if you do not remember the details of The Fifth Season, you will be lost. It is very important that you read book 2 after reading book 1 for optimal enjoyment. At the very least, read reviews and summaries to get you caught up because Jemisin does little to re-orient us to her world. She expects us to remember and jump right in with her. And let me tell you, this book is dense both in writing style and subject matter. It is not for fans of light, fast-paced fantasy. N.K. Jemisin respects her readers’ intelligence and demands that we put in a bit of work on our end. That means sometimes taking notes, reading the glossary and appendix at the end of the book, and be engaged at all times. If you’re willing to do this work, then get ready for a thrilling ride. Jemisin has raised the stakes in The Broken Earth trilogy to literally astronomical proportions. Having read the conclusion of book 2, I am incredibly hyped to read the finale!
Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration.
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