Let me begin by stating the obvious: N. K. Jemisin is a brilliant fantasy writer. The prequel to The Obelisk Gate, The Fifth Season, has recently been awarded the Hugo Award and it should not surprise you that a novel that by all accounts is an epic fantasy should win a science fiction award, because Jemisin kills it across every genre. The Fifth Season follows Damaya, Syenite, and Essun, three women “orogene,” individuals endowed with magic abilities to control seismic and other geological movements. In spite of having what appears to be very useful—and cool—powers in the context of a world perpetually ravaged by genocidal natural disasters, orogenes are considered subhumans by the non-magical “stills.” Orogenes (also pejoratively called “roggas”) are forcefully removed from their communities—when they are not killed by their parents—and trained at the Fulcrum to become Imperial agents in charge of controlling and protecting people from disasters. For yet unexplained reasons, the Stillness suffers from catastrophic natural disasters eventually unleashing “Fifth Seasons”—decades, sometimes centuries-long post-apocalyptic winters. Living in the Stillness revolves entirely on preparing for Seasons by imposing ruthless laws on the social and economic organization of comms and cities. The novel begins with Essun’s discovery that her husband Jija beat to death their infant son Uche after discovering that he inherited his mother’s (secret) orogeny. Essun goes on a vengeful quest to find Jija and their daughter Nassun, whom he kidnapped. Other chapter PoVs follow the child Damaya, who is taken to the Fulcrum for training, and Syenite, a four-ringed Imperial Orogene who goes on a mission with her ten-ringer mentor Alabaster. By the end of the novel, we discover that all three characters are one and the same person at different point of her life.
Obelisk Gate beings where Fifth Season left us, with Essun in the mysterious, orogene-controlled comm of Castrima, a city within a giant geode. We finally have access to Nassun’s point of view as her father takes her to the mysterious comm of Found Moon, founded by Essun’s Guardian Schaffa. Guardians control orogenes as they have magical abilities to negate their orogeny and to use it against them. As Essun tries to integrate into Castrima and learn everything she can form the dying Alabaster, who charges her with a mission to end all Seasons, Nassun becomes a powerful orogene at Found Moon.
Obelisk Gate refuses to give us easy solutions to the conflicts of Fifth Season. Essun does not find Nassun, and has in fact almost abandoned the idea of ever finding her. Moreover, Nassun does not turn out to be a stereotypical loving daughter; in fact, she has little affection for a mother who brutally trained her to control her orogeny in secret. She resents her for marrying Jija, who clearly was a still who would never overcome his hatred of orogenes, and for failing to give her more information about her own past. Obelisk Gate avoids the pit trap of so many second installments by keeping the story fast-paced and surprising. It further complicates the overarching plot and expands upon the magical creatures briefly outlined in the previous novel, especially the mysterious stone eaters. However, although I loved the second-person narration in Fifth Season, I found it tedious here. I would have preferred a change in narrator, for although the revelation of the narrator’s identity as Hoa at the end of Fifth Season was a nice plot twist, in Obelisk Gate it becomes frustrating because we have yet to discover why Hoa is retelling the entire story to Essun (presumably). A change in narrators would have brought a breath of air into the story.
Overall, Obelisk Gate engrossed me into the brilliantly complex world of the Stillness as much as its prequel, and kept me on my toes for the final installment.