“It’s amazing, when you think about it. Everyone in the Stillness is like this. Never mind what’s in the oceans, never mind what’s in the sky; never look at your own horizon and wonder what’s beyond it. We’ve spent centuries making fun of the astronomests for their crackpot theories, but what we really found incredible was that they ever bothered to look up to formulate them.”
(This blog post contains full spoilers for The Fifth Season and mild spoilers for its sequel. Spoiler-free opinion: The Obelisk Gate is more of the same; it isn’t as novel as the first book but it isn’t a drop in quality, either.)
The belle of the ball from last year, a saga of a world plagued by earthquakes and bigotry against people who can move the earth, continues here. Essun’s quest to find her daughter has taken a detour, and that’s not even counting the retelling of past phases of her life, cleverly disguised as being the stories of different people before it’s revealed that they’re only metaphorically different from the Essun of today. Now she has to balance the urgent business she has with her family with the new community she’s integrating with and the appearance of an old flame with inside information on the encroaching apocalypse.
I greatly enjoyed The Fifth Season when it came out, but a year has passed and it doesn’t seem nearly so novel anymore, relative to the competition. The narrative trick that Jemisin played the first time can’t be repeated, so now we have multiple perspectives for real this time. Essun’s daughter, Nassun, goes on a painful journey of her own as she masters orogeny, torn between the father who loves her and loathes what she is and the abusive teacher from Essun’s past who might be on a twisted road to redemption. The best and worst aspects of this book both relate to Nassun.
What most interested me about Nassun was her perpsective on Essun; while Essun is worried sick about what her husband will do to her daughter, Nassun is considerably more conflicted about the two of them. Finding out that Essun used the same harsh methods that scared her as a child on her own child is heartbreaking to see, especially when Nassun, knowing nothing about why her mother does what she does, hardens her heart to her. Much like how the series as a whole demonstrates uncomfortable aspects of systemic oppression, Nassun’s story and her perspective on Essun touches on the perpetuation of abusive attitudes by victims of it, and reveals another facet of Essun that she may never have seen about herself. Unfortunately, Nassun’s story here is only half interesting, the other half coming off like a retread of Essun’s life that tells the audience what they already know. The Obelisk Gate isn’t long, but sometimes it feels padded.
There are a few things I still don’t know by the end of it, including the end goal of Nassun’s story and the reason why Essun’s scenes are in second-person. More clues are given to this latter enigma, but they only make me more confused. At least the explanation for why things in this setting are the way they are makes sense and comes earlier than expected. But compared to the compression of three points of view into one from The Fifth Season, it’s also conventional, almost like a more typical fantasy book. It is also very much the middle book of a trilogy, with a beginning and ending much less definitive than that of The Dark Forest. Final judgment on this book may have to wait until I read The Stone Sky, but until now, it’s a satisfactory follow-up. Just follow up sooner after The Fifth Season than I did, if you can help it.