I wavered here. I loved The Fifth Season, but this installment was paced quite differently: the story moved quickly, but it didn’t have the same frantic, desperate scramble as its predecessor, and, in the end, our primary protagonist from Book 1 seemed to have come to a halt while the tale, her tale, flowed rapidly around her.
The Obelisk Gate (The Broken Earth #2)
Author: N.K. Jemisin
Version: Amazon Kindle
“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. Alabaster Tenring – madman, world-crusher, savior – has returned with a mission: to train his successor, Essun, and thus seal the fate of the Stillness forever.
“The Stillness is the wall which stands against the flow of tradition, the spark of hope long buried under the thickening ashfall. And it will not be broken.”
One of the things I love about Jemisin’s novels is that, while firmly magical and fantastical, they are rooted in very modern, very common issues, and most of the characters are quite believable – as with real life, there is a fine line between the heroes and the villains, and separating one from the other is often simply a matter of perspective. And it takes a bit for that to settle with me. Initially after reading The Obelisk Gate, I was left thinking, “Gah, I can’t like this heroine. One of the most unlikable people from the first one is actually more likable than her now. Hoa is about the only one who stays constant.”
But I had to chew it over a bit. It had to settle.
As we learned in the previous installment, Essun is a revenant; she is what was left over after her other two incarnations were worn down and ripped away. Her childhood was punctuated by fear and prejudice, and her salvation proved to be little better at the Fulcrum under the tutelage of the Guardians. The nervous, skittish child was chiseled away, broken bone by broken bone, to create a stone-cold bitch who held herself apart… but whose ferocity was a facade, a compensation so that none would know how truly afraid she was of letting anyone in or caring about anyone else. And then she found acceptance, she found friendship and allies she loved… All of that is typical of the fantasy-hero, the struggle to become powerful – but most fantasy heroes typically use their powers for good, and that’s what sets them apart from the baddies they encounter. They don’t typically destroy whole settlements because of the hatred of a few. They certainly don’t smother babies to death with their bare hands. And after leaving her like that at the end of The Fifth Season, we come to The Obelisk Gate, where we hear of Nassun’s childhood and perception of her mother… and it does Essun no favors. She definitely isn’t winning Mother of the Year anytime soon, and after her behavior in Castrima, she wouldn’t win Friend or Citizen of the Year, either. She becomes even more bitter, and she begins doing her level best to alienate and piss off everyone around her, from Hoa to the headswoman Ykka as well as some old friends and allies. She comes across as angry, haughty, and stubborn to a fault and is a thoroughly unlikable woman…
And yet. And yet, I don’t have to like her. The real question is who would I be had I gone through her experiences? Would I emerge from all of the years of abuse, mistrust, hatred, and helplessness with a sense of humor? With a sense of honor? Or would I become someone unrecognizable? Someone I wouldn’t – I couldn’t – like? Someone like Essun? And the reality is this: if Essun had been any softer, if she’d been kinder and honorable and trusting, if she’d been a gentle mother and loyal, honest wife… she would have died. Years ago. Probably in that barn before Schaffa even met her.
And Schaffa… Smiling Schaffa, grinning like a maniac even as he broke little Essun’s hand, even when he taught her to control her powers by applying systematic physical and mental torture. At the end of The Fifth Season, we were left with only a vague impression of Essun’s former Guardian – sure, he saved wee Essun as a kiddie, and he protected her while she was at the Fulcrum… but those were all part of his job. That is what Guardians do, after all – find orogenes and train them. He was the weapon used by the Fulcrum to keep Essun in line. He ultimately had saved her life, and he did show her friendship, of a sort, but his manipulation of her young mind, the way he twisted love around pain and taught loyalty with suffering caused her to fear him more than any other. In The Obelisk Gate, we see Schaffa yet again saving a young orogene – this time Essun’s daughter, Nassun – and we see him doing the same things with her, the subtle manipulations, the mad grinning, the complete disregard for life unless it is his own or his orogene’s, the not-quite-right, more-than-a-little-creepy way he has of always being right there, always watching, always judging…
And yet. And yet, he admits that his overall creepy, leering nature is a byproduct of his own physical torture. He mourns what he did in the past, the sacrifices he was forced to make under duress, the pain he was forced to cause – he regrets the loss of his beloved Essun, and he hates and struggles now to control the part of him that made him a Guardian, that made him do all the horrible things he did to all of the orogenes in his charge. No longer with the Fulcrum, he saves Nassun’s life, he shows her friendship, he appears to love her, to be loyal to her rather than simply demanding loyalty from her. He accepts her for what she is in a way her biological father simply refuses to, and he teaches her without hurting her in a way her mother simply didn’t know how to do. Do I pity him? Yes. A little. But I still can’t bring myself to forgive him for what he did in the first book. Not yet. Not until I see where he’s going with this.
We don’t see quite as much of the world itself as we did in the previous installment. Where The Fifth Season moved us from settlement to settlement and got us used to the idea of this world and its history and inhabitants, The Obelisk Gate is more settled. It is a digging in, for all intents and purposes, with all of our characters essentially fixed in place. What new areas and people we do see are laid before us with Jemisin’s typical skill with imagery – lost cities, violent raiders, new Fulcrums… In this second book of the series, the power of the orogenes is front and center, from the beauty of Essun’s intricate Fulcrum-taught craft to the limitless power of Ykka’s self-trained might, and we see a glimpse of what the cost for wielding such a power might be.
Jemisin’s Broken Earth series is about magic and those who can use it. But even more so is it about prejudice and bigotry and the uneducated, illogical fears from which they stem. It’s about family, friendship, and the ties that bind people to one another. It’s about acceptance of yourself, no matter what others may say or think or do.
And, yeah. There’s magic. And it’s awesome.
The third and final book of the trilogy, The Stone Sky, is due out next year.