Book Review: The Obelisk Gate

Essun has found herself somewhere safe, or as close to it as one can get at the end of the world, but she still hasn’t done the one thing she set out to: find her daughter. Unfortunately, it looks like that goal is going to have to wait, while Essun deals with one imminent threat after another and learns (or tries to) how to do the impossible from a man she never thought she’d see again. A man who may not even live long enough to teach her. Suffice it to say, she has a lot on her plate.

**Warning: Spoilers for The Broken Earth Book 1. While I’ve done my best to keep spoilers to a minimum, if you haven’t finished the first one yet you’re going to want to do that first, because there are things that I mention in this review that give away certain plot points or revelations. But anyway, if you haven’t finished book 1 yet, what are you playing at? Do yourself a favour, go read that (and then my review of it!) and then come have a look at this review.**

N. K. Jemisin begins book two, The Obelisk Gate, by back-tracking to explore the events directly preceding book 1. Not the moments leading up to the literal earth-shattering, ending-of-the-world disaster, but the more personal tragedy: the death of Essun’s sun, Uche, at the hands of her husband. And then, immediately afterwards, we pick up right where the first book left off. Essun, discussing the aforementioned destruction of the world as we know it with the man who caused it.

This will prove to be a common theme, and one of the things that makes this book so irresistible to me, the butting up of large-scale disaster with interpersonal tension so thick it could suffocate you. Neither takes a back seat, and both have equal effect on the emotional states of the characters.

Essun’s chapters are still told in second person, which I once again took a few pages to get into, giving them an interesting sense of immediacy. The narrator makes an appearance though, addressing you (you as Essun, rather than you the reader), which I had mixed feelings about. Ultimately, I think this is part of Jemisin tying together the narratives, the ones lurking in the background as well as the ones playing out more obviously, as some of the quieter voices from book one start to make themselves heard. I didn’t love it though, because I felt like it pulled me out of the story to draw my attention to the unusual narrative style.

There were a few moments where I found the writing style veered from appealingly conversational to self-conscious, but I think I’ve got a lower than usual threshold for that kind of thing than most. There’s a repeated technique where ‘your’ thoughts interrupt or overtake the narration, which works to emphasise the emotional stakes of a moment or revelation, but I kind of lost patience with it. I did enjoy the general tone of the writing though, there’s a dry humour to it that I loved, and I appreciated that the book never talked down to the reader.

It’s a complex story, with an intricate not-quite-magic system at play, and the teacher-student dynamic between Alabaster and Essun could have been an opportunity for the author to spoon-feed readers some of the more baffling elements of orogeny and the obelisks. But Jemisin (or perhaps Essun and Alabaster themselves) says a frank “rust that” to that notion, and the lessons are mostly an opportunity for the characters to confuse themselves further rather than a chance to clear things up for the reader. I made a few attempts to re-read some of those sections, hoping to gain some understanding of the mechanisms of power the characters were working with, but in the end the only thing that really helped me understand was forging on with the story and, like Essun, waiting for experience to teach me what words could not. How many books give you an experience that mirrors the main characters’ so clearly, while making it seem so effortless?

I haven’t even mentioned the other storylines in the book. Unlike in The Fifth Season, the different point-of-view chapters in The Obelisk Gate seem to be broadly occurring at the same time, and the chapters are mostly split between two characters rather than three. Essun and Nassun, Essun’s daughter, make up the two predominant perspectives, with another character in Nassun’s orbit taking a few chapters and the narrating character getting “interludes”, brief chapters in italics and a different font which provide a hazy context for the conflicts jostling behind the scenes. I was glad that this book didn’t introduce any new characters to have point of view chapters, and I think it’s part of Jemisin’s great skill as a writer to keep the story’s focus so tight while the disaster of the Season clearly plays out on a planetary scale.

I read through this book in a little over a day, it absolutely hooked me from start to finish, and I’ve already ordered book three. This is one of the most compelling and involved fantasy series I’ve read in recent memory, and I’d recommend it to any fans of the genre. There are some descriptions of violence and injury that might be difficult for sensitive readers, but it’s not gratuitous or unnecessarily graphic. If you enjoy stories that weave science into their magic, invented worlds so real you can taste the ash in the air and characters with real flaws trying to make the best of catastrophe then you should really be reading these books.

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