The Obelisk Gate.

N.K. Jemisin won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel for her 2015 book The Fifth Season, the first novel in the Broken Earth trilogy, set well into the future, on an Earth that is plagued by massive tectonic shifts that result in lengthy Seasons where nearly all life on the surface is extinguished and humans must huddle underground to wait the Season out. (You might call this “cli-fi,” although it’s not clear that this kind of climate change is caused by humans … at least, not through two books.) The sequel, The Obelisk Gate, won the Hugo Award again this year, but while it follows the first in chronology and setting, it has a thoroughly different tenor than the first book did.

Where The Fifth Season followed three distinct storylines set apart in time, The Obelisk Gate focuses on just two simultaneous threads: Essen’s life in the underground commune (“comm”) Tarima, which finds itself under threat from within and without; and her daughter Nassun’s journey with Essun’s husband south toward a comm where the father, Jija, hopes his daughter will be “cured” of her gift of orogeny – a sort of magical, innate ability to alter the very molecules of one’s environment, including starting tectonic shifts and communicating with the orbiting obelisks of unknown origin. A massive Season is imminent, likely caused by Essun’s former lover Alabaster, who created the Rift that provoked this season but is now himself turning to stone as a result. Essun wants to find her daughter, but as an orogene in a world where such people are often killed (even by their Guardians) when a Season approaches, she’s also driven toward self-preservation. Nassun, meanwhile, is barely scratching the surface of her own powers, but when she and Jija arrive at the southern comm, she meets the former Guardian Schaffa, who recognizes her limitless potential and begins to train her even as Jija believes she’s going to be made ‘normal.’

The twin but parallel plot strands make The Obelisk Gate a much more straightforward read than its predecessor, in which time seemed deliberately obscured from the reader and the relationship between the three subplots far from clear. That conceit ended up working in the book’s favor, increasing the tension (and perhaps baiting the reader’s impatience), so that The Obelisk Gate feels like a book in the same universe by a different author – not better or worse, just different, more conventional, and thus more dependent on the nature of the two primary characters.

So where Jemisin has created a grim, realistic, almost tangible setting for these books that elevated The Fifth Season, here in the middle book of the series, her weaker characterization becomes more of a problem. Essun and Nassun are both good people, with credible emotional reactions to setbacks and obstacles, but neither is particularly interesting or compelling; you root for these characters because they represent hope, for themselves and humanity, not out of any direct empathy for or interest in either of them. Some of the secondary characters have that interest, such as the complex motivations that drive Schaffa or the bizarre nature of the stone-eaters Alabaster and Hoa, but the two main women lack the texture or depth to carry the book.

Instead, the story itself has to do all of the lifting, and it’s mostly up to the task, although there’s still some Middle Book Syndrome as Jemisin gets further into her world-building and explains more of what’s happening in the book’s present. The nature of the Obelisks is at least partly explained, and she sets up what I assume will be the narrative of the third book, The Stone Sky, how Essun and Nassun will interact with the Obelisks to save the world (or at least parts of it). It’s compelling enough to keep me reading, but I thought this was a step down in ambition and in characterization from the first book.

Next up: I’ve finally begun MacKinlay Cantor’s Andersonville, winner of the 1956 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Speak Your Mind

*