Summary: This is the way the world ends, for the last time.
The season of endings grows darker, as civilization fades into the long cold night.
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.
Review: It’s probably no surprise to anyone to see me rate this book so highly. After all, I loved The Fifth Season, so there was every chance I’d love its sequel just as much. Especially with it being a book by N K Jemisin; I don’t think I’ve read anything of hers that I haven’t loved. I had high hopes for this novel when I started it, and I wasn’t at all disappointed.
If you thought the story in The Fifth Season was complex, just wait until The Obelisk Gate picks up steam. It’s not hard to keep track of events and new information, but there’s a lot of it, and it comes at the reader as hard and fast as it comes at the characters. There’s a lot to take in, a complex and changing world, characters having their previous way of life turned on its head, and everything they knew turns out to be deeper and more twisted than they could have imagined.
The story continues with Essun, living in a community of orogenes and non-orogenes together, trying to weather the beginnings of the Season that looks like it will utterly destroy everything humanity has accomplished, trying to learn from her dying mentor what she needs to do in order to set things right before he dies. She hasn’t forgotten her goal to hunt down the man who killed her son and kidnapped her daughter, Nassun.
Nassun, on the other hand, is still with that man, who drags her all the way to a place he heard about where orogenes can be cured of their terrible and dangerous affliction. But that’s not exactly the case, as Nassun learns, and as her power grows, she uncovers a great deal about the world, its history, and its potential future.
And that, my friends, is probably the worst description you’ll ever read of this book. it doesn’t do it justice. But to say more would include spoilers. I could talk about how orogeny is revealed to be a kind of magic, or how a group of stone eaters seem to want humanity wiped out and are working to accomplish that goal, or how the moon is coming back and somebody has to orogenically catch it and return it to a stable orbit, and that may save the world or destroy it, or any number of amazing aspects to this story that are worth talking about, but every one of the amazing things that hooked my attention would ruin bits of the story for those who haven’t read it yet, and this book is one that’s truly worth not being spoiled in advance.
Fortunately, there’s more than can be talked about that won’t spoil anything for anyone. For instance, the parallels of how orogenes are treated to how people of colour have been and still are treated in various parts of the world. It’s hard to hear characters call someone a rogga, or a rogga-lover, and not think back to a certain word that begins with ‘N’ that’s used in similar ways. It’s hard to read some of the quotes from in-universe books that refer to orogenes being inferior, inhuman, and only good so long as they’re used like slaves, and not draw some comparisons from our own history. It’s painful, and difficult to be confronted with, because it talks about racism without talking directly about racism. The analogies are there for all to see, but sometimes people are only open to something when it’s couched in other terms. I can’t say for sure that it was Jemisin’s intent to have all of it sink unconsciously into readers’ brains, or whether she just intended to draw analogies and let that be the end of it, but from personal experience, I’ve noticed that people seem more willing to accept something when they’ve accepted that thing in another form.
Morality comes into play, unsurprisingly; specifically, shifting morality. The world is different during a Season. That much is established from the beginning. Animals and plants change in response to catastrophe, or else they don’t survive and they die off. But that has nothing to do with morality. The way humans act does, or so it can be argued. What’s unthinkable in one circumstance might be accepted in times of crisis. Cannibalism is treated as a thing that nobody really wants to do, for instance, but when there are people are starving and you’re trying to last for as long as you can, it become acceptable, just a part of life, to eat your own kind in order to survive. One less person eating from stores of food, and their body nourished you for a time. To kill someone when they become too a big a drain on resources. Brutality becomes an everyday thing, distanced from thoughts of cruelty and disgust, because these things that are unconscionable in one time become necessary in another. It was an interesting thing to explore, placed into the story in little pieces, bits of dialogue here and there, and the way characters treated it was realistic and sad at the same time.
Similar to this was the running thread that sometimes cruel things must be done for a person’s own good. Or at least, the idea of it, rather than the veracity of it. How many of us haven’t argued against someone doing something for their own good when it’s not actually what you want or need? Is it right or wrong to demand a change of someone’s identity that will make it easier for them to get by in the world? Is it better or worse to remove someone’s pain if it also means removing their strength? Save a flawed world, or destroy both the bad and the good within it? Questions with no good answer, a dozen arguments for against each side, and they come up time and again in The Obelisk Gate. I loved reading about how different characters dealt with these ethical dilemmas, the arguments that they made, and what that revealed about them as people.
I also, and possibly especially, loved seeing Nassun’s growth. She goes from somebody who needs rescuing, a somewhat nebulous goal in The Fifth Season, to a powerful person with a growing sense of individuality and purpose as The Obelisk Gate progresses. She manipulates her father in order to save herself, still feels some affection for him while fearing him and his anger. She learns things that orogeny can do, including things she’s already been taught it’s not supposed to do that it actually can. Her relationship with Schaffa is a complicated one on both sides, with mixed honesty and deception, and it made all of their interactions that much more interesting. Honestly, after a while I began reading Essun’s sections of the story with a bit of impatience, because I wanted things to shift back to Nassun’s perspective so that I could see more of her development. It wasn’t that Essun wasn’t interesting, but more that Nassun held more potential in my mind, and I wanted to see how her part in the story all plays out.
As expected, Jemisin’s poetic writing shines in this book, stark and evocative and beautiful. That perfect bled between stream-of-consciousness and complete narration, which I think it something of a signature style by this point. Difficult to pull off, but brilliantly effective and hooking readers when it’s done right; and by damn, does she ever do it right! She tells such wonderfully creative stories in such a unique way, and the two aspects come together and become something breathtaking, transformative and important.
I can’t recommend this enough. It’s not one you can jump into without having read The Fifth Season, or else you will be utterly lost, so if you haven’t read the first book yet, then definitely do so before picking this one up. It’s a powerful story that takes you on an incredible journey of destruction and survival, struggle and hope, and after finishing this only yesterday, I already can’t wait to see how the rest of the story continues in the next book. To say that I enjoyed it would be an understatement. Jemisin is a creative genius, and I eagerly anticipate what she does next.
(Received for review from the publisher.)