Staring Down the Barrel of the Apocalypse – A Review of The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin

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This is the second book in the Broken Earth Trilogy. While there are no spoilers for this book, there might be spoilers for The Fifth Season, which is the first book in the series. If you have not read that book, please do not read this review.

In my review for The Fifth Season, I commented on the popularity of post-apocalyptic fiction. At the time, it was merely an observation of a trend, but I had not really thought to ask why. Since then, I’ve managed to dig up a few interesting articles commenting on the matter, including this 2014 article from Forbes, which comments on the popularity of young-adult books like The Hunger Games trilogy, the Divergent series, and the Maze Runner books. The author of the article, Debra Donston-Miller, quotes author Todd Mitchell (who also writes young-adult post-apocalyptic fiction), who says that the popularity of post-apocalyptic fiction may be attributed to “a deep-seated social need or anxiety” rooted in the fact that the current generation is seeing how the world is changing – and that it is not changing for the better. Social inequality, rapid climate change, and increasing pressure to do better and more in less time are three of the primary reasons why the current generation believes that the future is bleak; in their eyes, if there is a future to be had, it will more closely resemble Suzanne Collins’ Panem than any rosy, technological utopia previous generations may have imagined for themselves.

However, not all writers are equal. Some manage to write dystopian post-apocalyptic fiction extraordinarily well, while others do not. The problem, I think, lies partially in the fact that the genre is currently trendy, and it sells books, and movies, and TV shows. This means that media outlets (including publishers) may be eager to take on mediocre (or even outright bad) works, in the hopes to cash in on the trend before it changes yet again. The result: bookstore shelves are bloated with books that might, or might not, be any good, and it is up to the reader to sift the gold from the dross – something I tend to have very little patience for lately.

Fortunately, there are a handful of writers whose skill I trust without question, and N.K. Jemisin is one of them. When The Fifth Season was released last year I chose to pick it up without waiting for any reviews or other hype, because I was already familiar with the quality of Jemisin’s work thanks to having read the Inheritance Trilogy two years prior. With The Fifth Season Jemisin proved that she is one of the finest fantasy writers currently in publication – a sentiment echoed by many others when she received the 2016 Hugo Award for Best Novel . The story of The Fifth Season continues in The Obelisk Gate.

The Obelisk Gate picks up almost immediately where The Fifth Season left off. After finding the underground comm named Castrima, built in the heart of a giant geode powered by technology long since lost to the rest of the world, Essun finds herself struggling to figure out what she needs to do next. Making this decision even harder is her old mentor and lover, Alabaster, a powerful orogene who is determined to set Essun on a path he himself can no longer take. Essun is no longer sure what to do: should she leave Castrima and try to find Nassun? Should she stay in Castrima, and wait out the Season along with the rest of the comm? Or should she listen to Alabaster, and learn how to bring the Season – and all other Seasons – to an end?

There are two things Jemisin does extremely well: world-building, and characterisation. (I would include “writing” in that list, but I believe that’s a given.) Jemisin builds her worlds with care – even if the relevance of some tidbit of information is not immediately obvious. Take, for example, what Jemisin writes about lorists:

So lorists are no longer Regwo, but most of them tint their lips black in the Regwo’s memory. Not that they remember why, anymore. Now it’s just how one knows a lorist: by the lips and by the stack of polymer tablets they carry, and by the shabby clothes they tend to wear, and by the fact that they usually do not have real comm names. They aren’t commless, mind. In theory they could return their home comms in the event of a Season, although by profession they tend to wander far enough to make returning impractical. In practice, many communities will take them in, even during a Season, because even the most stoic community wants entrainment during the long cold nights. For this reason, most lorists, train in the arts—music and comedy and such. They also act as teachers and caretakers of the young in times when no one else can be spared for such duty, and most importantly they serve as a reminder that others have survived worse through the ages. Every comm needs that.

This seems like a great deal of information to dump on a reader’s head for a minor character, and it is, but I have long since realised that Jemisin never includes details unless they are important, or become important later on. So many of the details in The Fifth Season, for example, turned out to be important in that particular novel, and a few pieces of information are important even in The Obelisk Gate. The narrator’s casual, conversational tone also helps: it makes so much information go by quickly, because it feels like the reader is just listening to a good friend explain something to him or her over a cup of coffee in a cafe.

This casual narrative tone also helps some of the darker parts of the story go down a bit easier, even though Jemisin does nothing to dial down the actual level of violence and gore:

Nassun does not know that it started with the rock. When you see her, do not tell her.

When Nassun comes home that afternoon, Uche is already dead. Jija is standing over his cooling corpse in the den, breathing hard. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to beat a toddler to death, but he hyperventilated while he did it. When Nassun comes in there’s still not enough carbon dioxide in Jija’s bloodstream; he’s dizzy, shaky, chilled. Irrational. So when Nassun pulls up sharply in the doorway of the den, staring at the tableau and only slowly understanding what she sees, Jija blurts, “Are you one, too?”

While the image itself – a grown man standing over the dead body of the toddler he just killed – is by no means a pretty picture, the casual tone in which the scene is described has a distancing effect for the reader, as if by treating the scene as nothing more than one of the inevitable realities of the world of the Stillness (and, if the reader has read The Fifth Season, he or she is entirely aware that it is), it is possible to put the scene at arm’s length, to see it, read it, and not be overly affected.

But of course, the reader is affected by it. That is the wonder of Jemisin’s writing: that she can talk about such horrific scenes, hold them at arm’s length, and still have such scenes chill the blood – or break the heart, as in the following excerpt:

… I’m sorry I didn’t stop all of it, Daddy. I tried.”

The Daddy is what works, just as her tears saved her before. The murder in his expression flickers, fades, twists. “I can’t kill you,” he whispered, to himself.

Nassun sees the waver of him. It is also instinct that she steps forward and takes his hand. He flinches…but this time she holds on. “Daddy,” she says again, this time putting more of a needy whine into her voice. …

It is a manipulation. Something of her is warped out of true by this moment, and from now on all her acts of affection towards her father will be calculated, performative. Her childhood dies, for all intents and purposes. But that is better than all of her dying, she knows.

(He is “Jija” now, in her head. He will be Jija hereafter, forever, and never Daddy again except out loud, when Nassun needs reins to steer him.)

This brings me to characterisation. In the previous novel the reader has gotten to know Essun and Alabaster, and their tales continue in this novel, but the book also tells the stories of Schaffa and Nassun. Both of these characters are interesting, not only because they are important to Essun, but because of who they turn out to be in this novel. While it is possible the reader has developed expectations about who they are because of what he or she has read of them in The Fifth Season, in The Obelisk Gate they start speaking in their own voices (after a fashion). And what the reader gets is not quite what might he or she might have expected of them.

Take Schaffa, for example. I absolutely hated him in The Fifth Season because of what he did to Damaya, but in this novel, he, well, changes. I won’t get into what happens because to do so would be to spoil too much of the plot, but suffice to say that my feelings for him are more complicated now than simple, straightforward hatred. I cannot say that I like him, because I don’t, but neither do I dislike him as much as I used to. These complicated feelings about him are the main reason why I actually like him now: not because he’s the kind of person I would like as a friend, but more because he feels less like a cardboard villain and more like an actual, living, breathing, person.

The same can be said of Nassun. Perhaps because the reader does not really get to know her until this novel, the image he or she has of Nassun aligns with Essun’s memories.This is understandable, given the narration and plot of The Fifth Season. But in The Obelisk Gate, the reader is reminded that Nassun is her own person, and any assumptions made about her while reading the first book might not necessarily hold true to who she really is. It soon turns out that Nassun is far more complicated than any of the memories Essun has of her – because, after all, Essun sees Nassun through the eyes of a mother, and there is something pleasantly simple about that gaze. Nassun herself is another beast entirely: one the reader may or may not actually like. For my part, I very much like Nassun precisely because she is complicated, and nothing about her is straightforwardly likeable, or straightforwardly unlikeable.

However, for all that this novel has excellent world-building, is populated by wonderful characters, and is written in great style, it does have one weak spot: the plot, particularly in relation to the overall narrative of the series. While there is nothing inherently wrong with the novel’s plot – not least because a lot of it is devoted to character development – there is a certain unevenness to it that reminds me that this is the middle book of a trilogy: the midway point between a spectacular opening and what promises to be a spectacular ending. This is what I call “middle book syndrome”, and while The Obelisk Gate does not suffer too badly from it, I still strongly feel that sense of it being a waypoint on the journey towards something greater, instead of being something great on its own.

Overall, The Obelisk Gate is a fine read and great continuation of the Broken Earth Trilogy. It’s the kind of story readers may expect from N.K. Jemisin: dark and heartbreaking, but with the occasional glimmer of hope to show that though the apocalypse is approaching, all is not lost – at least, not yet. However, it does suffer from a mild case of middle book syndrome, which is rather surprising given that this is a Jemisin book, and her work does not normally suffer from such a malaise. It is a good midway point, though, and I am now very much looking forward to the concluding volume, because this book has set the stage for that epic ending, and I really, really want to know how the Stillness will end (or won’t, as the case may be).

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