Book Review: ‘The Obelisk Gate’ (2016)

The short: 4/5 ✦. A stunning novel of complex character motivations, unspeakable injustice, and magic statues, only just falling short of its predecessor.

The long:

N.K. Jemisin is cruel.

No, no, sorry, that’s not true. Father Earth is cruel.

N.K. Jemisin is simply an evil genius.

The world she has created in her Fifth Season series is bone-grindingly awful; even Westeros would be a more suitable place to live. But it is a world inspired by, adapted from, and built upon reality. The earth is cruel and life isn’t fair. People get hurt. People are murderers. People are hateful. People destroy. All this is true in our world, as well as in the Stillness.

The difference is that the Stillness has orogenes and stone eaters and floating obelisks and magic.

The Obelisk Gate further expands upon what we learned in The Fifth Season. We learn more about everything I just listed above, among other things, and Jemisin manages to straddle the line between exposition and info-dump (though admittedly, she wavers). Unlike the first book, this one focuses on two people, Essun and her daughter, Nassun. Strangely, while this dueling of POVs simplifies the book’s structure, it also makes the plot heavier and more difficult to understand.

And well, look: as other reviewers have said ad nauseum, the bar was simply set too high from The Fifth Season, yet I still hesitate to accuse The Obelisk Gate of having classic “middle book” problems. It’s just too good. Its merits vastly outweigh its detriments.

And yet.

This sequel is indeed slower paced. There’s a lot of information tossed at the reader, and at times, it’s just a little too much. I’m still not entirely sure what the stone eaters are or what the obelisks do, even though I know it was definitely explained (probably — at least to a degree for the formulation of proper theories; I’m just grasping at straws). And I didn’t get quite as captivated reading this as I did the first book. The characters (though absolutely amazing and so well developed and flawed and POC and tall and LGBTQ and ahhhh) are largely sedentary as they and we readers parse through new data and revelations. It’s more of a thinker’s book, I suppose.

But still.

Still, it was captivating and wild. Dark and unyielding in its severity of accurately depicting this wasted world. Jemisin does not shy away from the harsh possibility of cannibalism for survival, the killing of one’s allies along with enemies, the idea of “ends justifying the means,” and none of this is glorified either. Living in the Stillness means living to just exist — and most of the population wants you dead for being different.

Ultimately, I’m altogether not at all capable of dissecting this series properly. The characters (as aforementioned: amazing) are complex, the world as tight and well constructed as anything by Tolkien (indeed, Jemisin teaches worldbuilding seminars), and the plot is layered in such a way that if you want to dig deeper, you totally can. From my piteous layperson’s perspective, The Fifth Season wins the gold medal, with The Obelisk Gate winning silver. Simple as that.

(also i can’t wait for the stone sky omggggggg)

Header image: The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin, published August 18th 2016 by Orbit.

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