The Obelisk Gate
This review contains spoilers for The Fifth Season.
In the first book of The Broken Earth series by author N.K. Jemisin, we were introduced to the world of the Stillness, a place where natural disasters tear the world apart for a couple of years, until everything slowly returns to normal. Humanity has become obsessed with survival and safety, and do little else but worry about the next inclement disaster. We also learn about the "orogenes," people dismissively called "roggas," shunned because of their power to control earth and stone. A well-trained orogene can quell an earthquake or move a boulder, but one who lacks control or discipline could kill an entire town without warning. The Fifth Season tells the story of three such women: the young child Damaya who is brought to the Fulcrum by a Guardian called Schaffa where orogenes are trained; the young woman Syenite who is an advanced orogene from the Fulcrum and assigned to one of their most powerful members known as Alabaster; and Essun, a middle-aged mother and teacher who is trying to track down her daughter Nassun after her husband took her away and murdered their son. The end of the book revealed one of two surprises for the readers: 1) that these three women are the same person, and 2) that the Stillness is, or very well could be, Earth in the future, and that the moon is missing from the sky.
The second book in the series continues from where we left off, but this time we no longer have extended "flashbacks" about Damaya or Syenite. For one thing, we have an idea of who the narrator is from the first book and who continues to narrate in the second person in this one as well. But while we are given a few explanations, there are still cryptic hints and subtle irregularities that leave us wondering about this narrator's intentions, or what the end goal truly is. The story is split between Essun as she bunkers down in the giant geode "comm" called Castrima during the cataclysmic season set to last for thousands of years. There, she is taught new secrets and revelations from a dying Alabaster, whose orogene is beginning to slowly petrify his body. Essun hasn't given up on finding her daughter, but she knows that for now she needs to stay to help the people in Castrima and learn what she can from Alabaster. Most of her chapters are revolve around the revelations of the origin of the seasons, the absence of the moon, the nature of the mysterious "stone eaters," and the nature of orogene, or "magic," as Alabaster calls it. Throughout these lessons, Essun learns about the Obelisk Gate, a powerful something that could save (or destroy) the world.
The other half of the story concerns Nassun and her father making their way to a far-southern comm called Found Moon, which is being run by three Guardians, one of which is the still-alive Schaffa (Syenite's old Guardian, presumed dead after the events of the previous book). Nassun and Schaffa bond, and we learn more about Nassun and her abilities as well as what exactly a Guardian is, and how it relates to many of the questions and mysteries from the previous book.
Like The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate consists of some heavy subject matter, filled with desperation, sorrow, and guilt. The characters are trying to strive during the beginning of what will essentially be their extinction. There are moments of love and levity, and the slow reveal of the world's secrets keeps the story moving through the despair. Both Essun and Nassun are becoming stronger in their lives and in their powers, and the choices they make often result in horrifying consequences. Jemisin really digs into these characters, and we see their thoughts, hopes, dreams, and the always present self-hatred. Life in the Stillness is nasty, brutish, and short, and just because the world is ending doesn't mean that we see an end to racism, prejudice, or political savagery.
This is an outstanding book expertly told by a superb storyteller. My one real complaint is that I have such a hard time picturing the world of the Stillness. We are given clothing descriptions at times, and we know that stone is used more often than metal and wood because of its durability, but considering the world is often in flux, I'm having trouble figuring out what the world looks like exactly. Is it almost Medieval or prehistoric looking? Is it futuristic? Is it modern, with clothing and styles and buildings similar to our own? It's not clear, and the varying descriptions of architecture, clothing, and technology do little to clear it up.
None of this takes away from the fact that I've never read anything before like this series. Like its predecessor, it's very possible that The Obelisk Gate could find itself receiving accolades in its field: It's already been nominated for a Nebula Award. In the meantime, I eagerly await its sequel, The Stone Sky, and cannot wait to see how it concludes. Again, if you have not read this series, please consider picking it up. It is a reading experience unlike any other.