RogerBW's Blog

The Obelisk Gate, N K Jemisin 07 June 2017

2016 Hugo-nominated science-fantasy. As the world ends, two orogenes try to protect their little patches of it. Definitely don't try to start the series here.

I'm not going to say much about the plot because of spoilers, but there are two primary narratives going on here: Essun, one of the voices of the first book, living in and protecting an underground community, and Nassun, her young daughter, also an orogene (people with psychic powers to control earthquakes and such like), on the road with her father.

In both cases it's second-person narration, always somewhat offputting, with the same voice; but where this book really falls short of the first, for me, is that it doesn't dig into the mindsets of slavery and oppression in anything like the way The Fifth Season did. There we had a really interesting examination of the way the orogenes had become complicit in their own oppression as the only way to survive; here we have one person who's pretty much broken free of that and is discovering amazing new things while being permanently gloomy, and another who's young enough to believe what people tell her most of the time until she eventually grows up enough to break out for herself.

This is the middle book of a trilogy. In the 1990s that was a damning thing to say on its own, since too often it meant the long dull journey between the interesting setup of book one and the interesting conclusion of book three; a fair amount of recent writing has managed to get away from that syndrome, but here it comes back in force. This book contains some leftover bits of setup and some early hints of resolution, and mostly not much change in the protagonists, except that their powers wax and wane as the plot demands. In the first book, the world was unambiguously ending, and the story was about how a person should cope with that; now, there's some hope that it can be saved, and that's a perverse disappointment. It's as if On the Beach had ended with someone inventing a fallout-cleaning machine Just In Time.

And all that's a damn shame, because once you get away from the middle-book problems what's left is rather excellent. It's still a fascinating world, albeit one that smells like the setup for a trolley problem; the writing is fine except when oh no oh no it gets self-indulgent; most importantly, the people are not simply representative of single impulses and stereotypes the way many moral tales would be, but always complex and interesting.

It's still distinctly better than many other books I've read recently, but it's very much a step down from The Fifth Season.

To be followed by The Stone Sky. This work was nominated for the 2017 Hugo Awards.

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