- Genre: Fantasy / science fiction
- Series: The Broken Earth, part 2
- Pages: 448
- My rating: 8.5/10
N.K. Jemisin continues her stunning story of the Stillness in The Obelisk Gate. Without spoiling the story, The Obelisk Gate continues the tale from two perspectives: that of Essun in the Castrima comm and of her daughter Nassun, who has been invisible so far.
The Obelisk Gate is a change of pace compared to The Fifth Season. Where the first novel moved very fast in a pyrotechnic display of huge events and emotionally traumatic twists, The Obelisk Gate is more like the Earth itself. It looks at peace, but under the surface huge powers are moving. With this I mean that the characters, Essun and Nassun, stay mostly put in one or two locations and deal with more mundane happenings than those in The Fifth Season. But in the background of the tale, mayor events are unfolding in the shadows.
The Fifth Season ends with a tantalizing question, asked by Alabaster. It comes so much out of the blue that for a moment I was struck silent. It clarifies in a single line that there is an entire history to this fantasy landscape that we and all the inhabitants do not have knowledge of. Could there be a better way to whet the appetite for the second instalment of the story? And indeed, The Obelisk Gate takes strides to lift the veil in parts. There are struggles between factors who have been largely invisible so far. We begin to get an idea where the Guardians come from and, corrupted or otherwise, on whose side they are. And what about the enigmatic Stone eaters?
Just like the Earth is broken, so are its people. Jemisin keeps exploring in this series the elements that shape our character. In The Fifth Season, she stressed how trauma changes people permanently. In The Obelisk Gate, she shifts focus to how we are the product of the people we meet. How relationships and fateful encounters with certain people chisel our character and that we are them and they are us. Essun, Nassun and Alabaster are the examples of this, and they are fully fleshed out as people. The characters are strong and three-dimensional in this story.
I’m a bit on the fence about the way Jemisin explains the deeper layers of the story. Essun is living in Castrima and trying to find her way in this society, eating up lots of pages in the book doing so. Then once in a while, we get an infodump about what is really going on in the wider world, either through Alabaster giving lectures or through interludes. I would have preferred following Alabaster’s adventures a bit more, and being present when he makes his own discoveries. That would have injected some more spice into the tale. But now, whenever an ‘Essun-chapter’ started, I didn’t feel that satisfying surge of anticipation of starting a new chapter.
Nevertheless, The Obelisk Gate ends in a major climax that keeps pushing the scale of the story. Like many great epics, the world-spanning scale of it is combined with the heavy weight of close personal connections. It is a fine continuation of the story started in The Fifth Season. We can now look forward to the final instalment of the story with the full confidence that Jemisin is going to deliver an outstanding trilogy overall. She feels in full command of the story she is telling, surely buoyed up by deeper personal feelings that motivate her to put this all on paper.