The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin

Book two of the Broken Earth trilogy went past like lightning, unsurprisingly. (Mild-to-moderate spoilers for book one – but not book two – follow.)

At the end of The Fifth Season, Essun – the latter-day identity of girl we knew as Damaya and the woman we knew as Syenite – was hiking south in a particularly nasty Season, in search of her missing daughter. She had picked up one companion, a strange boy named Hoa, and then another, an equally-but-differently strange woman named Tonkee (who we will learn also wore a different identity in earlier times). The extremely oddball trio had arrived at an apparently abandoned comm (for community) called Castrima, where they had been sort-of-invited, sort-of-taken-prisoner into a hidden but thriving comm underground of Castrima. There, other reunions: Alabaster had also taken up residency, for one. Castrima is a unique settlement in that it tolerates orogenes, even works to attract them and is led by one. That doesn’t mean that all relations are good, though.

The Obelisk Gate alternates between two storylines: that of Essun in Castrima-under (in a Season and under duress), and that of Nassun, Essun’s daughter (the first time we’ve met her). Nassun’s story backs up in time to allow us to follow her from the start of the Season, and her father’s murder of her little brother, until Essun’s narrative present. Essun learns more about the various people (stills, orogenes, and stone eaters) she’s cohabitating with, and continues to learn under her mentor Alabaster, whose own story is drawing to a close. Nassun finds a mentor as well, another character we know (and have decidedly mixed feelings about) from book one. She grows as a mightily powerful orogene and begins to navigate the liabilities of that power. Mother and daughter draw nearer to each other, not geographically but in common traits and efforts. Book three seems sure to follow that drawing-together.

The obelisks themselves, of the title, are important to the outcome of the world in this series; their power and the power to guide and steer them are central to the stories of both Essun and Nassun. But they feel much less important to me than the character arcs and relationships at play – Nassun and Shaffa, Nassun and her father, Essun and Alabaster (and Tonkee and Hoa and Ykka and Lerna, etc.). Plus, the obelisks get a little more technical, both in the science side of the sci-fi and the magic side of the fantasy. And that stuff is always less interesting to me than the human element (even where it’s not entirely clear who is technically ‘human’).

I love, love, love the complex nature of this fictional world and how full and thorough its rules and customs are. I feel well convinced that Jemisin has done the backstory work to know how its parts operate even in ways that aren’t spelled out on the page. It’s compelling and absorbing, a world to lose myself in, which I value highly. I’m excited about book three (and sorry to see the series close, but happy to have bought a whole ‘nother one already!). Jemisin’s characters are convincing: there really isn’t a one of them that I adore and admire entirely, because they all have their considerable flaws. But they’re very real, and I care what happens to them.

This writer is a master.


Rating: 8 boilbugs.

One Response

  1. […] Stone Sky is Book three of the Broken Earth trilogy (following The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate). I raced through this series and am now a firm Jemisin fan. I’m just trying to take a […]

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