Book Review: The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Series: Book 2 of The Broken Earth
Publisher: Orbit (August 18, 2016)
Length: 448 pages
The Obelisk Gate is the highly anticipated follow-up to The Fifth Season, further building upon the world and characters created by N.K. Jemisin in the world of The Broken Earth. While it has the distinct feel of a middle book in a trilogy, letting the first book maintain its edge in my eyes, it’s still nonetheless a fantastic and very rich sequel.
The story picks up from where we left off, transitioning us into the start of a new Season—or a period of instability marked by a major apocalyptic event. The Orogene known as Alabaster has used his powers of earth manipulation to tear the world apart, and that was the last time Essun thought she would see her old mentor. But now, while traveling across the land to find her daughter Nassun, Essun has found Alabaster again, dying in an underground comm called Castrima. Apparently, her former teacher still has more knowledge to pass on to her, information that could potentially affect the rise and ebb of the devastating Seasons, perhaps halting the cycles all together.
Meanwhile, Nassun finds herself in a bit of a bind, kidnapped by her father Jija after he discovered his children were Orogenes. He had already killed Nassun’s little brother, but could not bring himself to do the same to his little girl. Instead, he decides to take her away to a place where he heard Orogeny could be “fixed”, and Nassun has no choice but to follow, torn between love and fear of her father.
The Obelisk Gate both reads and feels a little different from the first book, emphasizing plot while also expanding upon the world-building. We get to learn a lot more about The Stillness as well as the continent’s various peoples and factions. The mysterious presence of the obelisks also plays a key role in this book, their significance serving as a centerpiece for much of the world’s history and lore. This aspect is strengthened and polished up considerably in this sequel, giving me the sense that Jemisin is working to build up to some important developments related to the magic and mystery surrounding Orogeny.
However, it’s the characters that really shine, much as they did in the previous book. This time, the focus is mainly split between the two characters Essun and her daughter Nassun, following the individual journeys of both strong yet conflicted women. Once again, Essun is the heart that drives this novel forward, but to my surprise, it was Nassun who really endeared herself to me. The story focusing on the relationship between her and Jija struck a very deep, raw chord. There are just too many terrible emotions there, more than any young girl should bear. I could feel the love she has for her father, but also the cancerous seed of knowledge in the back of her mind that his love for her is conditional and that he can never see past his hate for something that is so integral to her identity. Then there are Nassun’s memories of her mother and the harsh methods Essun used to prepare her daughter for a life lived in secret. All these layers of complexity are woven together to form a truly heart-wrenching picture of Nassun’s relationship with her parents, each thread a thoughtful commentary on the intricate connections between them. Jemisin’s portrayal of all the complex feelings involved makes it virtually impossible not to feel completely drawn into these characters’ lives.
As I said previously though, I still have to give The Fifth Season a slight edge over The Obelisk Gate, simply because the sequel didn’t quite consume me the way the first book did. For one, this book was slower to take off, and without revealing any spoilers for the series, I thought the story also lacked some of the structural and stylistic subtleties that made its predecessor so ingenious. Jemisin manages to use a couple creative devices here too, but for the most part they didn’t work as nearly as well, such as the second-person narrative for Essun’s chapters—mainly because it was so darn distracting. While I’m more frustrated at myself than at the novel for letting something like this bother me, there’s still no denying that it took me quite a while to get used to this narrative mode. When it’s used sparingly in brief sections of a novel, I find sometimes that I barely even notice, but here it was just so prevalent that there was really no way for me to push it entirely out of my awareness.
Still, I really can’t stress enough what a good sequel this is. I’m a relatively new fan of the author, since The Fifth Season was my first book by her, but I am already in love with her gorgeous writing and the way she crafts characters that feel so well-rounded and real. The Obelisk Gate has such an incredible amount to offer, just an all-around amazing read.