Essun—once Damaya, once Syenite, now avenger—has found shelter, but not her daughter. Instead there is Alabaster Tenring, destroyer of the world, with a request. But if Essun does what he asks, it would seal the fate of the Stillness forever.
Far away, her daughter Nassun is growing in power—and her choices will break the world.
I always struggle when writing reviews for N.K. Jemisin’s books. First of all, I’m always afraid that I can’t do the books justice. Jemisin writes such complex worlds, characters and stories with so many layers baked in that I can’t possibly understand all of it, never mind capture it in a review. Secondly, I just love the books so much that all I want to do is gush and make everyone read it. And that is not conducive to writing a coherent review. This always leads to me procrastinating on actually writing these reviews, but today is the day and I’m just going to push through it and review The Obelisk Gate.
So let’s get the inevitable gushing out of the way first. I LOVE this book. It is brilliant and the story absolutely broke me. Jemisin manages to shatter my heart into a thousand pieces every time just by making me care so much for her characters. The Obelisk Gate has been nominated for a Hugo — like its predecessor The Fifth Season, which took the rocket home — and it is an absolutely deserved nomination (full disclosure: I nominated it as well).
As with The Fifth Season the story is told from three different points of view. In the first book there was a clear division in the various narrations, which were brought together through the reveal towards the end of the book. In The Obelisk Gate the division is still there without having the same twist as the characters are clearly identified through the chapter headings, which reveal that they are either about Essun, Nassun, or Schaffa. What is revealed through the narrative and the structure is that the actual narrator of the story is Hoa. At first, I only thought he was narrating the second person arc, yet it dawned on me that he might actually also be narrating the other two arcs as well. That he is in fact telling the entire story to Essun at a future point. Perhaps one of the reveals in the third book will be why Hoa is telling the story the way he is; I hope it will be.
Essun, with Hoa and Tonkee, finds herself holed up at Castrima in a comm filled with orogenes where to her surprise she finds Alabaster. But it is an Alabaster who is very much transformed by his actions of the previous book. His transformation and Essun’s coming to terms with their shared history and Baster’s role in that were powerful. Her frustration, anger, and — despite everything — abiding love for him were affecting and I was left in tears by their final scenes together. Essun’s finding herself having to reassess most if not all of her relationships in the course of the book. Her feelings for Hoa, her perception of his nature, her treatment of her daughter Nassun, her regard for Lerna, how she relates to other orogenes—all of it is changed and turned upside down. There is so much growth in her story and she is so incredibly tenacious and strong. Essun is certainly one of the most memorable protagonists of the past five years for me.
Nassun’s story is one of equal growth, though perhaps that is a less surprising fact as Nassun is also still a young teen, who cannot help but grow and change, that is part of their nature. What fascinated me about Nassun’s story was how her perception of her parents changes over the course of the novel. She has to come to terms with the abuse she has faced over the course of her life from both of them, even if in Essun’s case it was meant to ultimately protect Nassun. Abuse can never be excused or justified by intent, but realising that intent may help the victim parse what has happened to them. As such, it is also intriguing — and somewhat ironic — that Nassun forms such a close bond with Schaffa, Syenite’s former Guardian. He becomes her trusted adult, while everything in me screamed for her not to, because as a reader I knew of his past with her mother. But then, Schaffa isn’t the man he once was and his motivations have changed or have they? I loved the complexity and mystery of his character and point of view and I loved learning more about his world.
Both Essun and Nassun have to find a place in a new community: Essun in Castrima and Nassun in Found Moon. I love how Jemisin manages to convey so much through the communities and the way that they are put together. Each place is trying to find its own way of dealing with the current crisis of this latest Season. In Castrima orogeny and orogenes are a central part of the comm, yet they are still regarded as other and in the end the distrust that regard engenders seemingly wins out and destabilises everything. In Found Moon orogenes are also a central part of the community but in a completely different way: they are kept apart from the non-orogenes and told that they can be ‘cured’. I found the portrayal of the two different comms fantastic and the people in them equally compelling.
Jemisin has so much crammed into this novel, that it is impossible to unpack everything in one review. There are commentaries on race, sexuality, and gender, on the realities of being differently abled, of grief, of anger, hope, love, forgiveness, and of sacrificing everything to save the world. This review can’t do The Obelisk Gate justice, but I do hope it has made you curious to discover more of the world of The Broken Earth series and to dive into Jemisin’s amazing story.