published August 2016
Where I got it: received review copy from the publisher
Welcome to another not-a-review! There is so much happening on so many levels Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate, and my brain is spinning all over the place that a simple “review” just wouldn’t do. All of these thoughts in my head about Obelisk Gate, I need to get them out. Be warned of spoilers ahead for Obelisk Gate, The Fifth Season, some other titles by Jemisin and others, and stream of consciousness babbling. Also ahead are predictions, wordplay thoughts, heartbreak, and things this book made me think about, places it took me. Jemisin does so much more than just write a book, so I wanted to do more than just write a review.
I read The Fifth Season around the same time i was reading Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem, and I found unexpected parallels between both books. I had my guesses about what was really going on in The Fifth Season, and a handful of them were right. Maybe I came up with those guesses due to Jemisin’s sublime skill with foreshadowing, maybe it was because I was reading two extinction level event books at the same time and my brain was adding things up, who knows.
I read The Obelisk Gate alongside Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Children, and again, found unexpected parallels between the two novels. The “new children” in the Bear have something in common with young orogenes – they are blamed for the problems of the world, even problems entirely outside their control. These are children who have been chased, hunted down, put in “schools”, all for their own good. Sometimes their parents fight for them, but just as often their parents say “good riddance”, and all these children want is to be accepted and loved for who they are. Even more similarities is how those in power disagree on how the new children/orogenes should be educated, if they should be forced to live in a certain way, for everyone’s protection. I’ve also just realized, that if presented just right, Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy and the Greg Bear books could take place in the same storytelling universe, due to the evolution of, how best to say it, people doing things a little differently.
I also couldn’t help but compare this series with Jemisin’s Inheritance series. I almost used the phrase “four legs, two legs, three legs” in my review of The Fifth Season as an inside joke to Inheritance fans, but figured that would be too big of a spoiler for the big twist in that novel. But there is another connection that just came into play as I was finishing Obelisk Gate – that of a child who isn’t a child. Someone who appears vulnerable, but is actually nothing of the sort. Is physical appearance used for the sake of manipulation? Do they do it because they miss the memories of being a child? Because they need to negate everything about themselves to get someone else to trust and/or love them?
Continuing from The Fifth Season, in The Obelisk Gate Essun meets more “ferals”, orogenes who were never brought to a Fulcrum, people who had to learn to control their orogeny on their own, people who wield it in a very different way than Essun was taught to. Because they use it in a different way, they have an entirely different vocabulary and practice of what they do. The end result might be the same, but how they get there is very different. If Essun is going to further develop her skills, she’s going to have to start thinking like a feral, and start realizing that her way of doing orogeny isn’t the only way.
And fantastic news, in The Obelisk Gate we get to meet Nassun! And you know just about as soon as you meet her that what she is going through is going to break her. Her chapters were my favorite part, because until now she’s been a mystery character. She was always her father’s favorite, and maybe Jija won’t kill her when he finds out what she is. Jija was always the more gentle parent than Essun (Essun, not gentle to her children? what??) He takes Nassun to a secret place in the south, where he believes she can be cured. And here’s where the heartbreak starts – children will do anything for the approval of their parents. And Jija just wants his daughter to be healthy and normal. The only way she can gain his approval is to negate everything she naturally is. She’s going to have to choose – be herself, or be loved by her father. She can’t have both. Huh. Maybe Nassun and the other “not child” have something in common? That’s a whole ‘nother line of questioning and guessing that I could have hours of fun with.
Pacing wise, The Obelisk Gate felt like a waiting game. I had a general idea of what was going on, now I just needed to wait for the characters to figure out what they were going to do. That’s not to say the book is slow or draggy, it’s quite the opposite, it’s just paced very differently than the first book in the series. How much was Nassun going to learn, and what would that knowledge do to her? How fast can Alabaster teach Essun? So far, we’ve gotten so much from Essun’s point of view, of course we’re going to think of her as this wonderful person. Just wait until you get Nassun’s point of view. It’s no wonder Nassun prefers the company of her father, even though he pretty much hates her.
I love how language changes over time, and authors too have a lot of fun with language, using words that might or might not be related to contemporary common words, playing around with etymology. The word orogene for example. As I roll that word around in my mouth, I wonder if etymologically, is it related to the word “origin”, as in the origin of the planet or the origin of the situation? Or maybe it’s related to the word “genetic”? Oro-Genetic? “Oro” is Spanish for Gold, could it be “golden genes”? Who knows, and maybe the term will never be explained, but it’s fun to chew on and play around with. The origin of the stone eaters too, was fun to chew on. Are they human? Are they not? How did they get started? They seem to laugh a little at Essun and everyone else, that’s it’s so funny that the “humans” think they know what the hell is going on.
The last few chapters of Obelisk Gate pack a helluva punch – with people putting two and two together and realizing what has to happen for the seasons to end. There are also some possible whisperings of a group who doesn’t want the seasons to end. The seasons have become a status quo of sorts, and once you get used to something, change can be scary. I remember thinking a lot about negative space while reading The Fifth Season, thinking about where people weren’t looking, what they weren’t thinking about. Those thoughts are still there, still itching the back of my mind.
If you’re looking for it, both The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate have plenty going on between the lines for you to chew on and think about. An entire portion of the populace that has been deemed inferior. “Passing” for a different kind of person so that society allows your continued existence, and how that causes schisms in cultures. The concept that the majority is allowed to decide who of their citizens are human, who are not, who is treated as human, who isn’t, and what’s to be done with those who are deemed not human, or not human enough. How much of yourself do you need to erase to be accepted, to “pass”? If you make those changes to be accepted by the majority rulers, how will your kind judge you?
My guesses, my predictions – are a lot of them wrong? Oh, I’m sure! But I gotta love a book and series that makes me think so damn much.