Listen. When I said in my last review that I'm locked in to this trilogy now? I meant it! I am LOCKED IN! It took me nine months to realize what a feat of brilliance I had on my hands with The Fifth Season (book 1 of N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy) enough to finish it, and only three weeks to finish its sequel, The Obelisk Gate, which I'm writing about today.
Before I dig into my spoilerific review—like I said last time, I'm explaining this series to y'all as I'm explaining it to myself, and this review will be as long as it wants to be—I must give another shout-out to my marvelous friend Sho, who bought me the Broken Earth box set in the first place. After I messaged them about finishing The Fifth Season, they sent me some fascinating articles about Jemisin's writing process (including why she chose second-person narration, how she approached creating races in this universe, and why she chose to "trick" readers into accepting Essun by presenting her as three different people). I am SHOCKED that Jemisin thought readers would hate Essun for being unlikable. Unlikable why? Because she's 40-something, a woman of color, a mom, has killed many, and is hard with people? Psshh! I've loved Essun in all her iterations so far, I refuse to be deterred by her supposedly-sordid details, and I refuse to judge any of her choices, especially when I can see through her hardness to grasp how loving and sensitive she truly is. That's my traumatized, cynical, messed up on the inside, don't trust nobody, prone to shame spirals, Black woman kindred spirit right there. And I'mma stick beside her!
The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin
This Too Much (by The Black Guy Who Tips), I frequently hear the hosts discuss episodes advancing the plot versus advancing the characters, and as a novel The Obelisk Gate definitely feels like the latter. Book 2 might not seem as action-packed as book 1, but the "Hold up, WHAT IN THE ACTUAL F**K is happening right now?!" factor is still prevalent, and book 2 does flesh out more of the rules (so to speak) of this universe that were established or hinted at in book 1. Rules such as:
Orogeny comes from the "sessapinae", a special part of the brain stem that only orogenes have. Guardians (having orogeny as a recessive trait but not fully being orogenes themselves) have their sessapinae permanently altered as children when the empire surgically puts an implant ("corestone") inside them to make them Guardians. These implants cause Guardians pain at the base of their skull for the rest of their lives, which is why they're always smiling creepily like they do, because they're told that smiling releases pain-reducing endorphins. These implants are also prone to "contamination" due to—I'm calling it now, but I might be wrong—the iron in them, making certain Guardians deranged. That's what happened to the female Guardian in book 1 who spoke to Essun (Damaya) as if possessed before Schaffa killed her. The implant also prevents Guardians from aging past a certain point; they can live for centuries.
When enacting orogeny, orogenes emit a "torus" of ice that forms around them and freezes anything or anyone within a certain radius (a radius that orogenes can learn to control the size of). Think energy in, energy out, and bystanders die if they get too close. Sometimes orogenes "ice" people on purpose, or as a reflex to feeling threatened. Some orogenes can also turn people and things into stone, just like stone eaters can (or at least Hoa showed that he could in book 1). It took me until embarrassingly late in this novel to fully grasp that when Jemisin uses the word "stone", it doesn't just mean gray rock, which is what I'd visualized. In the Broken Earth universe, "stone" refers to all kinds of stones, including gemstones. So when living creatures are described as being "turned to stone", basically becoming statues and dying instantly, the deathly result is often quite colorful rather than dull and uniform. The reason some orogenes can turn living things into stone is because...
...Orogenes have two powers at their disposal. One is energy distribution (orogeny); it's the style that Fulcrum orogenes are taught, and that most untrained orogenes instinctively know to a certain extent, which focuses on sensing/"sessing" with their sessapinae and connecting down through the earth for power. (This style relies on heat/pressure/physical movement.) The other style, unveiled in book 2, is "magic" distribution (or simply, magic); it's a highly-advanced and lesser-known style that Alabaster teaches Essun and that Essun's daughter Nassun discovers on her own, which focuses on perceiving with their awareness and connecting up to the floating obelisks for power. (This style relies on the threads of silvery-looking matter or "magic" found inside all living organisms and inside the obelisks too.) With this style, orogenes can access the interior of any substance, which allows them to do nearly anything from transmitting their consciousness through the air and surveying the entire continent at once, to altering the atomic bonds in people's bodies and turning them into stone. Orogeny is activated by exerting force, while magic is activated by resonating with the obelisks, of which there are 216 (217?) floating around the continent.
Relatedly, orogenes whose powers are activated can have their powers combined, creating a "network" to achieve a desired purpose. The same can be done with obelisks too, and a network of connected and activated obelisks is called the Obelisk Gate. The orogene acting as a yoke between all of the obelisks ("opening" the Obelisk Gate) becomes omnipotent for the brief amount of time that they can handle channeling all of that power through themselves without being destroyed.
And apparently, stone eaters are people too. I stand corrected. They used to be regular humans before being transformed. In fact, Hoa (Essun's stone eater) and Antimony (Alabaster's stone eater) are among the first and oldest stone eaters. Certain stone eaters attach themselves to certain orogenes, becoming their guardian or companion for life. And this companionship is triggered by obelisks (in the sky) pulsing and then floating like magnets toward orogenes who've connected to them while using their powers, whether those orogenes mean to connect or not. The obelisks' pulsing and movement alert stone eaters (in the ground) to those orogenes' location as well, prompting interested stone eaters to race and fight each other to be the first to approach them and establish an alliance.
Book 2 also introduces some new villains while reintroducing some important old ones, including:
Earth, apparently the biggest villain of all. While stonelore is the closest thing to a sacred text in the Broken Earth universe, the closest thing to God is Earth itself ("Father Earth"), which most people regard as malevolent ("Evil Earth" as opposed to, say, "Good God"). According to stonelore, Seasons did not exist and Father Earth was not malevolent until people, supposedly orogenes, over-exploited his resources by digging toward Earth's core to make and use obelisks for their power-hungry whims. (That's what the giant pits like the one Essun/Damaya found in book 1 were built for.) This exploitation somehow caused the Moon (capital M) to be flung away from Earth, and a Gospel-esque part of stonelore claims that Father Earth wages war upon humanity because humanity made his only child go away. Except it's actually the opposite of the Gospel story; it's not "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son" (John 3:16). It's, and I paraphrase, "For Father Earth so hated humans for taking the Moon from him that he avenged the loss by opening a can of whoop-a** on humanity, in the form of Seasons, for thousands and thousands of years to follow."
So the underlying conflict of this series is between Earth and humanity, and the "three-sided war" that Hoa and Alabaster explain to Essun in books 1 and 2 refers to the opposing objectives/factions concerned with how to end that underlying conflict. (Read: how to handle humans, who've messed everything up.) One side wants to eliminate humans; another side wants to neutralize humans by turning them all into stone eaters (supposedly stone eaters first came to be because Father Earth tried to make some people more earth-like); and another side wants to establish a truce where Earth and humanity can peacefully coexist (Hoa is part of this faction). Since stone eaters have been around for thousands of years, they're the main ones engineering this war, using humans as pawns. So far, the two clearest villains on the anti-human side are a stone eater known as Gray Man (who wants to turn all people into stone eaters) and the element/mineral/metal, iron. Iron is present as the tiny shards that line the walls of the obelisk pits, and is also present in the Guardians' implants (as mentioned above). Iron is somehow sentient, able to communicate with and invade the bodies of people who make close contact with it, possessing them on Evil Earth's behalf.
And last but not least of the villains, there's still Schaffa, Essun's former Guardian. Who to my bewilderment, ire, and disgust, did not perish when Essun blew up the island of Meov to prevent him from capturing her and her son toward the end of book 1. More on that later.
All of this additional information sets the stage for multiple showdowns to come (including a battle that happens toward the end of this book), and clearly defines one of the end goals of the series: using the Obelisk Gate to bring the Moon back in alignment with Earth, thereby appeasing Father Earth, which would restore seismic order and make Seasons obsolete so humanity can do more than just barely survive. It seems that all sides of the three-sided war want to retrieve the Moon, but not all are interested in the restabilization of humanity. Just like in book 1, book 2's chapters are divided between three main characters—who are actually three different people this time—and Hoa the stone eater is still narrating it all as if he's telling the story to Essun. In the order that The Obelisk Gate's main characters are first presented:
Nassun. Eight-year-old Nassun uses a diamond to bribe a traveling stone lorist to take her away from Tirimo, because she hates how much of a drill sergeant her mom is during their secret orogeny training sessions. On the day of the great Yumenes quake, Nassun comes home to find her dad Jija has beaten her little brother Uche to death because the lorist had returned the diamond to Jija (who was home alone with Uche), and Uche revealed himself to be orogene by sensing the diamond in Jija's pocket. Jija can't bear to kill Nassun, however, because she looks like him and is his favorite child. Instead, he abducts her and they spend a year traveling south to an Antarctic comm called Jekity, which contains a compound called Found Moon where orogenes can supposedly be "cured" of their orogeny. But Found Moon is actually a place where orogene children who've been rejected by their families can train each other under the supervision of Schaffa and two other Guardians. So history repeats itself, with Nassun being influenced by the same Guardian who groomed her mother as a child. (Except Nassun is not afraid of Schaffa like Essun was, and is loyal to Schaffa in an overzealous way.)
Over time, Nassun discovers new abilities by accidentally turning one of the other Found Moon kids to stone, and experimenting with "the silver" (magic) inside various living beings. She also accompanies Schaffa and another Guardian on a visit to the Antarctic Fulcrum, where she witnesses them slaughter the senior orogenes and then has a crisis about the horrors of the Fulcrum, which causes her to turn all the remaining orogenes there into stone. (I'm still confused as to why she reacted by killing her own kind, but moving on.) On the way back to Found Moon, a gray stone eater introduces himself to her, and she names him Steel. Almost 11 years old now and fed up with managing her dad's volatile emotions while pretending to not enjoy being an orogene, she visits Jija one last time, Jija slaps the mess out of her, and she ices his house (but not him) on the way out to
show him who the real gangsta is warn him against harming her further. Later, Jija comes to Found Moon attempting to kill Nassun, and Nassun kills him instead by turning him into stone too (but not before he manages to stab her in the shoulder). Steel witnesses all this but doesn't intervene, and afterwards manipulates Nassun into wanting to learn how to open the Obelisk Gate for him.
Essun. Despite Essun refusing to view the underground city of Castrima as anything but a temporary stopping point on her journey to finding her daughter, she gets roped into joining the headwoman's advisory council and training the comm's younger orogenes. Essun estimates that this current Season that Alabaster has started will last 10,000 years; humanity will likely go extinct unless someone does something about it, and both Lerna and Alabaster urge her to be that someone. As Alabaster slowly dies in the infirmary, gradually turning to stone as a side effect of using the Obelisk Gate to destroy Yumenes, he teaches Essun about magic redistribution so she can eventually use the Gate to bring the Moon back. (Finishing the mission that Alabaster began by slowing and altering the direction of the Moon's orbit when he destroyed Yumenes.) As a meat shortage looms, an army from a rival comm composed of elites leftover from the before times (Rennanis) sends a stone eater (Gray Man, also known to Nassun as Steel) to offer a deal: the Castrimans can join Rennanis voluntarily, but no orogenes are allowed. Gray Man holds Hoa's severed arm while delivering this message, and Essun rushes to her apartment to find Hoa in pieces. She feeds him the last of the special stones he's been carrying around since book 1, which enables Hoa to reconstitute himself into a young man made of black marble. This is the original form he was in when, as Essun now realizes, she (Syenite) first met him inside the garnet obelisk that exploded over Allia in book 1. Meanwhile, Castrima's headwoman Ykka (also an orogene) plans to hold a comm-wide vote on Rennanis's offer, but this inadvertently sets off a night of chaos where multiple people die, including Alabaster. (Essun gets triggered by the sight of a still woman about to beat down an orogene child like Jija beat Uche, she turns that woman into stone, and Alabaster uses his powers to intercept hers before she can stone everybody else. This saps the last of Alabaster's strength, and when Essun immediately goes to him in the infirmary, he's already dead and fully a statue, having left her a message: the enormous ovular onyx obelisk that he had Essun summon to Castrima is "the key".)
Essun then shatters the ballot box and declares that orogenes' humanity is not up for a vote; she's decided to make Alabaster's death count for something by ensuring that Castrima remains united. She goes above ground to reject the Rennanis army's offer, and gets stabbed in the right arm by a Guardian she didn't know they had, but is spared from death when Hoa transports her through the ground. Essun and Ykka collaborate to combine all the Castriman orogenes' powers and prevent Rennanis from fully breaching the underground, but their network is disrupted when Rennanis-allied stone eaters start attacking them. Then Essun returns above ground (accompanied by Hoa), and uses the onyx obelisk to summon numerous other obelisks and open the Obelisk Gate. She wields the Gate's power to destroy the Rennanis-allied stone eaters, reach long-distance and turn everyone back in Rennanis into stone, and finally track Nassun down. She closes the Gate and passes out, but not before catching a glimpse of Alabaster (whom Antimony has remade into a stone eater). Hoa pulls her below ground again and takes her to Lerna's apartment, where Lerna discovers that Essun's right arm is completely stone as a result of opening the Gate. Hoa informs Lerna that the Castrimans can now move into Rennanis en masse—since Essun inadvertently damaged Castrima while trying to defend it—but that Essun will want to retrieve her daughter first. Hoa and Lerna clock each other's affection for and devotion to Essun, but seem to come to an understanding. For now.
Schaffa. Schaffa is about to drown in the ocean after Essun blows Meov up, but then he starts to panic. And in his panic, the cold and angry presence of the sentient iron within his Guardian implant speaks to him, seducing him into letting it overtake him so he can keep living. This presence gradually erases many of his memories and makes him feed off of people's magic like some sort of vampire, except he touches two fingers to the napes of his victims' necks rather than biting them. (He can consume magic from both orogenes and stills, but feeding off of stills kills them.) He learns these new things about himself after he washes up at a comm called Metter and an old, orogene-hating man lets Schaffa recuperate at his home. Schaffa accidentally feeds on Eitz (the old man's preteen grandson who's secretly orogene) when the boy approaches Schaffa for help, and realizing what he's doing and how satisfying it feels, he murders all the adults in Eitz's family before leaving Metter with Eitz. He and Eitz eventually arrive at Jekity, where Schaffa convinces the headwoman to let him create a Guardian compound which he names Found Moon. By the time Nassun arrives there years later, she becomes the tenth child in Schaffa's care. (Eitz was the first and is the oldest, and unfortunately he's the kid that Nassun later stones on accident.)
Schaffa quickly singles Nassun out as his favorite once she arrives at Found Moon, and he fixates on her even more after he realizes that she's Essun's daughter. He's the one who insists that Nassun move into Found Moon permanently when her issues with her father start hindering her training; he even body slams Jija to scare him out of interfering. Having mostly lost who he used to be, Schaffa claims to want to redeem some of his past misdeeds that he still remembers, which is his main motivation for operating Found Moon (a safe environment where orogene children can explore their powers more freely than they would've been allowed to in the Fulcrum). But this is directly at odds with his impulses, as the iron presence in his head tempts him to keep feeding on and killing people (including Nassun), and punishes him with shocks of pain when he doesn't yield to those urges. When Nassun realizes that she can use her "silver" work to remove Schaffa's implant so he won't hurt anymore, Schaffa refuses because he doesn't want to rapidly age and die as a result. Later, he's the only one besides Steel to witness the aftermath of Nassun stoning her father.
I wrote much in my review of The Fifth Season about the parallels between being orogene and being Black in America. And those parallels still stand in The Obelisk Gate, because the empire's official declaration that orogenes are not people, as quoted at the end of chapter 14, echoes the logic of American slavery. (The Stillness depends on orogenes' slave labor, and so orogenes must be categorized as not human to justify the bondage that sustains the Stillness's way of life.) But now, The Obelisk Gate has me recognizing being orogene as an allegory for queerness too. For instance, when Eitz approaches Schaffa, his biggest fear is being outed to his family (especially his grandfather) because he doesn't want to disappoint them or be harmed by them in retaliation. But then, when Eitz isn't around, his mother confides to Schaffa that she already knows that Eitz is different. In this way, Eitz's subplot seems to echo that of a closeted gay youth. As for Nassun, at the part when Jija brings her to Jekity so she can be "cured" of her orogeny, my mind immediately pinged and went, Oh! Conversion therapy. And when Ykka tells Essun the story of how her fellow Castrimans surprisingly embraced her when she revealed herself to be orogene as a teenager, she says that she "outed myself." There's also something to be said about learning differences in this novel, and people having varying (but no lesser) strengths. Nassun doesn't understand Fulcrum-style orogeny that well, but she thrives at figuring out how to connect to obelisks and work magic without anyone teaching her how. Ykka is self-trained, so there's a lot Essun (Fulcrum-trained) can do that Ykka can't, but the reverse is true as well. Ykka can draw orogenes to Castrima (that's how Essun got there, because she felt pulled there) and already has experience combining other orogenes' powers with her own. In fact, she's the one who teaches Essun how to network with other orogenes, which makes Essun realize that Ykka doesn't need to know all the fancy little tricks because she knows how to do what's relevant to the needs of her comm.
If the biggest lesson I learned from The Fifth Season boiled down to, "The world doesn't have to be this way, and we don't have to live like this," then the biggest lesson I've learned from The Obelisk Gate is as follows. Even if there's no reasoning with bigotry/hatred/racism/foolishness/whateveryouwannacallit (some folks are lost causes), it's still worth it to believe in people and try living in harmony with them for the chance that they won't actually turn on you. A risk like that could be worth the potential cost. Because it's not about giving people an opportunity to prove their supposed inherent goodness; it's about you seizing your opportunity to live the life you want and deserve. For Ykka, that's a life of believing that orogenes and stills can truly live together peacefully, and that the Castrimans have her back because she's always had theirs. For Alabaster, that's the normal life that he, Essun, Innon, and Corundum had in Meov, even if only for a few years. And for Essun—who instinctively wants to "grab your runny-sack, grab your people, and run" but decides to stay and fight for Castrima and its ungrateful stills instead—that's whatever life will look like once this Season is, and hopefully all Seasons are, over. It's the better world that her children, especially her dead sons, have never gotten to experience.
Speaking of Essun's children, allow me to circle back to precious, impressionable, disillusioned Nassun. Initially, I sympathized with her but didn't see myself in her because I'm not a child, I don't have superpowers or siblings, my parents aren't murderers, and I've never been stuck on a creepy older man. But she and Jija have an argument in chapter 17 that unravels just like conversations with my dad used to, and that's when it hit me: Nassun adjusts herself around her dad's prickly emotions just like I had to do with mine, and over the same ages too (8 to 11)! I spent time alone with my dad because of court-ordered visitation and not because of widespread (un)natural disaster like Nassun; I was shoved down once but not shoved out of moving transportation and sent rolling down a jagged hill like Nassun was; and I wouldn't call what I did "manipulating", which is what Nassun believes she does to placate her father. However. Whittling myself down into some approximation of the girl my dad thought I was, funneling my actions, thoughts, and emotions into a limited range of acceptable expressions to avoid making him angry or primed to argue over something ridiculous? I definitely did all of that. Even the religious undertone of Jija's complaints and demands feels familiar to me. Like how he's bent on curing Nassun of her orogeny (my dad briefly tried to pray away my need for certain medications); or how he calls Found Moon a "den of iniquity" and forbids Nassun from fraternizing with certain children, even though he's never spent significant time there or gotten to know Nassun's peers (check); or how "How dare you disrespect your father!" flares up in him when Nassun gently counters him with truth he doesn't want to hear, because he perceives that as a challenge (no joke, I heard "The Bible says honor your father!" as a rebuttal until I was at least 22). Obviously Jija is an extreme case, and I didn't live Nassun's childhood to the exact same intensity or extent, but her experience is still very reminiscent of my own.
Today my dad and I text each other sporadically, which is as much communication as I'm comfortable with. I no longer feel the need to lament how he treated me as a child, and thinking about it doesn't affect me like it used to. But it did lay the foundation for me bracing myself for people's worst or not expecting much from them at all, avoiding them, being reluctant to trust them, and also being reluctant to wholeheartedly believe in the necessity of community to my personal well-being. So to read about a young Black girl being stuck with her estranged father under very specifically-distressing circumstances and eventually realizing she must sever ties with him (Nassun), in tandem with reading about a Black woman re-learning despite herself how to trust in people's better nature and rely on community to survive instead of cutting and running out of self-preservation (Essun)? That whooped my behind, I'm not gonna lie. I felt like N.K. Jemisin was telling me about myself.
Honestly speaking, whereas The Fifth Season left me feeling hopeful and energized, The Obelisk Gate has me feeling... sad. I enjoyed book 2 a lot, but it did have me catching a few stray hits. (I don't resent or take offense to this, I just wasn't expecting these characters' drama to come knocking at my front door. Now why am I in it, N.K. Jemisin? Why are you doing this to me?) And even though I've come exceedingly late to the party, I'm all in now and the Broken Earth trilogy has given me something to be enthused about, something to look forward to (and at the risk of sounding too dramatic, something to live for). So it's sad to know that this party is already two-thirds over, and I don't know what will take its place. Today is Thursday, my third day in a row of wrestling emotionally with finishing this book review—which I guess turned into more of an essay, so thank you for reading this far—and this morning I even spent most of my weekly therapy session talking and crying about everything I've just relayed to you all. I'm simply not ready to let this series go. Now, does this mean I'm going to restrain myself, savor book 3, ginger it slowly, and take my time with it so I can make this adventure last as long as possible? Of course not! Off to gobble up book 3 I go!
"I'd been looking at diagrams of the obelisks, trying to understand what their builders intended. My head hurt. I knew you were alive, and I missed you so much I was sick with it. I had this sudden, wild, half-rusted thought: Maybe, through the hole, I could get back to you" (168)."It takes all of herself, and the confidence that comes of delight, to engage with the earth to her fullest" (188)."You'd almost forgotten this part of him: the dreamer, the rebel, always reconsidering the way things have always been because maybe they should never have been that way in the first place. He's right, too... There's a reason Alabaster was the magnetic core of your little family, back when you were together.Damn, you're nostalgic today. It prompts you to say, 'I think you're not just a ten-ringer... You're always thinking. You're a genius, too—it's just that your genius is in a subject area that no one respects'" (204)."No vote... Leave. Go join Rennanis if they'll have you. But if you stay, no part of this comm gets to decide that any other part of this comm is expendable. No voting on who gets to be people" (334-35)."I wish you could love me anyway, even though I'm bad... I tried to keep loving you, but it was too hard" (387).