The Obelisk Gate
August 24, 2016 9:46 AM - by N. K. Jemisin - Subscribe

Continuing the trilogy that began with the multi-award-nominated The Fifth Season. The season of endings grows darker as civilization fades into the long cold night.

Essun -- once Damaya, once Syenite, now avenger -- has found shelter, but not her daughter. Instead there is Alabaster Tenring, destroyer of the world, with a request. But if Essun does what he asks, it would seal the fate of the Stillness forever.

Far away, her daughter Nassun is growing in power - and her choices will break the world.
posted by prefpara (16 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Started this last night, after rereading The Fifth Season to refresh my memory (turned out to be a good thing as I had managed to completely forget both the critical very last sentence and Hoa's character).

So far, almost halfway in, I'm enjoying it, but am not gripped as I was with the Fifth Season. Partly this is because one of the things I enjoyed most about the first volume is the sense of people caught up in huge earth-shattering (literally) and unknowable forces and how they responded and were broken within these constraints. I'm less keen on the 'one person has the power to FIX the world' direction it appears to be moving towards, or the pat explanations of the world's mysteries.

I am yet to be convinced by the new point of view characters. Nassun is a good character but I think Jemisin spends a little too much time explaining her psychology and motivations rather than letting them emerge as she did for Damaya. Schaffa, well, I find his chapters tedious.

All that said, I am enjoying it, and there is still more than half the book to go. Essun remains a fantastic character. Further thoughts to follow once I've finished it.
posted by tavegyl at 8:12 PM on August 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

I finished The Obelisk Gate last night and will be very interested in hearing others' views.

Obviously, spoilers.

First, it was good, but not as good as The Fifth Season which remains my favourite book from 2015. I finished the book liking it better than at the halfway point, but some of the flaws I complained about earlier remained.

As I said in my previous post, Essun’s character remained very compelling, and was an intriguing mix of the Syenite and Essun viewpoints, though there was little of Damaya left. Nassun filled the Damaya role, but was a very different person, a much more abused and harder person. Damaya had at least had love in her infancy and could comprehend her parents’ betrayal – Nassun had nothing but harshness from Essun, and her father’s betrayal surpassed comprehension.

You could see some of Jemisin’s background in counselling coming through with Nassun and with the careful descriptions of how the wounds inflicted on her cause her to respond and change and seek to manage adults. It’s carefully done, though I would have liked to have seen less of the scaffolding.

I see from online reviews that many found the sections set in Castrima rather slow and uninteresting. They were slow: the forward moment of The Fifth Season was notably missing. But I thought they were really compelling: I found some of the characters, particularly the rogga leader (whose name I now forget) and Tonkee superb, and I liked the story of a group of people trying to survive through a Season. I also wondered about the necessity of animal protein. I wonder if that is linked to how the sessapinae function?

Alabaster’s gradual death was horrific and the imagery of being slowly devoured by the stone eater who was protecting him was great.

A lot of my issues with The Obelisk Gate are to do with second book syndrome: there was a great deal of ground laying for future action. There was also an expansion of the book's terrain which could only be hinted at in The Fifth Season due to its tight focus. But this was, in itself, problematic for me. Rather than expanding the scope of the story, I found the stone eater conflicts and the discovery of magic diluted the intensity of the original great idea about orogeny, and I would have liked to have seen what Jemisin could have done within that beautifully thought out, but restricted, canvas.

With the broader scope of The Obelisk Gate, Jemisin's trademark intensity had, often, to be conveyed through literal narration or else through extreme actions and killing large numbers of people in creative ways. This shift from the previous book reflects the changing context of a Season as well being part of a broader trend towards extremely bloody acts normalised within alien value systems (I'm thinking Kameron Hurley), but I thought it lost the book some of its power.

I listened to an interview with Jemisin from when The Fifth Season was published, and she mentioned how she had been unsure she could manage a multi-book series with a continuing narrative, rather than the standalone books she’d written before. The series is yet to be finished, and Jemisin has demonstrated her ability to grow as a writer, but from The Obelisk Gate I do wonder if standalones do indeed come more naturally to her than series - Castrima would have made an excellent standalone or novella. My personal theory is that Jemisin is struggling with creating an expanded canvas for a three-book series – particularly with the addition of ‘magic’ and the stone eater factions – and wonder if a two-book series would not have been better. Nevertheless, I fully intend to pre-order the third book in the series as I'm convinced she can and will bring the spark of the first volume back to the series.
posted by tavegyl at 8:14 PM on August 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

Since writing the comments above I've come across Amal El-Mohtar's review for NPR. She has a very different take on the book. I often disagree strongly with her reviews so this isn't surprising, but this is spot-on as a comparison of how the two books in the series end:
[Like The Fifth Season] The Obelisk Gate ends at the edge of another precipice, but it is less a lightning strike of shock than it is a gathering of clouds, a crackling of building static to burst in The Season of Stillness next year.
posted by tavegyl at 9:36 PM on August 25, 2016

I assumed the animal protein was a vitamin b12 thing.

Rather than expanding the scope of the story, I found the stone eater conflicts and the discovery of magic diluted the intensity of the original great idea about orogeny

Yeah this twigged at me as well. Presumably there would have to be some kind of handwavium around the obelisks and how they work. But yeah I wish that could have been kept a little more limited. Especially because the task at hand (recapture the moon) is still basically physics, and would fit really well into that framework.

The other thing that bothered me was what we found out about Alabaster and his motivations. Like, I can't say that I liked it better when I thought he was destroying the world because he was pissed off and wanted to burn it all, but....well I liked it better than "actually a faction of the stone eaters are behind this."

I'm sort of terrified about the next book because it seems like everything is leading up to a showdown between Essun and Nassun and I like them both :(

I did love the imagery of the stone eaters.
posted by quaking fajita at 2:54 PM on August 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

I assumed the animal protein was a vitamin b12 thing.

I wondered if there was more to it because it came up so many times, but maybe it was just the most pressing example of all that was needed from the surface.

I'm sort of terrified about the next book because it seems like everything is leading up to a showdown between Essun and Nassun and I like them both :(

I'm looking forward to it. It'll be a great force vs object moment, except that each will face the only person left in the entire world who can still hurt her.
posted by tavegyl at 8:41 PM on August 26, 2016

So my guess is that Essun will want to return the moon to a stable orbit around the Earth, and Nassun will want to crash the moon right into the planet.
posted by rustcrumb at 9:08 PM on August 26, 2016

Yeah but at this rate Nassun is going to be way better at magic than Essun :( :( :(
posted by quaking fajita at 7:45 AM on August 27, 2016

I'm sort of terrified about the next book because it seems like everything is leading up to a showdown between Essun and Nassun

This is probably the thing that I am most nervous about. One of the things I liked so much about the first book was the feeling that anything could happen in the book's really novel and creatively imagined universe. But at the end of the second book, it feels like the plot is fully locked in and we know what has to happen - Essun has to fight Nassun for control of the obelisks so she can fix the moon - so the only question is how we'll get to that inevitable point. And that bums me out somewhat as a reader.

That said, I've enjoyed both books a lot. But I agree with those who suggest that Jemisin does better writing loosely connected standalone books within the same universe. I thought that approach worked terrifically well in the hundred thousand kingdoms books.
posted by prefpara at 12:43 PM on August 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

I loved "magic" because it subverts the trope. She's created a structure that has all the hallmarks of a "future Earth where magic is really advanced science" and then reveals that while Syenite was taught that oregeny obeyed conservation of energy, what's really going on underneath is ...magic.

Likewise, she's giving us exactly the opposite of what we want for Nassun. Nassun is "supposed" to reevaluate her mother given what she's learned, but instead her story is much, much more psychologically realistic.

And I don't think any of this can be understood outside the analysis of the experience of institutionalized oppression. I often feel like I'm only partly hearing what Jemison is saying because I mostly don't have the ears to hear it and get by only with what I've learned intellectually, not from experience.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 2:20 PM on August 27, 2016 [7 favorites]

A lot of my issues with The Obelisk Gate are to do with second book syndrome: there was a great deal of ground laying for future action.

Yeah, that's my only real problem with it so far. I need the third book. Now.

I assumed the animal protein was a vitamin b12 thing.

That was my take as well, especially from the symptom descriptions given. Also, there's a tangentially-connected short story where

a character comes to a city, almost certainly Rennanis, which is occupied by the refugees from Castrima, and she is offered some kind of soup which contains what sounds like nutritional yeast -- nutritional yeast being one of the very few non-animal sources of B-vitamins.

Essun has to fight Nassun for control of the obelisks so she can fix the moon

I don't see that being the trajectory of the story, actually. Now that Essun knows Nassun is alive and where she is, I doubt she'll want to do anything except go there once she wakes from her coma.

So the conflict won't be over the Moon, the conflict will be whether Essun and Nassun are capable of reconciliation. Nassun understands the purpose behind all the pain her mother inflicted, but that understanding seems to increase her hatred more than anything. More than that, are either of them even capable of the change required to make it happen? It's not clear that either of these characters has the emotional maturity required to become vulnerable enough for a reconciliation to work.

Schaffa also seems like a true wildcard in the situation right now. We have no idea what his purpose in setting up Found Moon is. He may be working with the Steel stone-eater, but somehow I don't think so.

The other thing I wonder about is how the implied revelation that the stone-eaters are all orogenes who burned themselves out accessing the Obelisk Gate will affect the story. I expect some more revelations about the origin of the Shattering Season in the next book.
posted by tobascodagama at 11:50 AM on September 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

So the conflict won't be over the Moon, the conflict will be whether Essun and Nassun are capable of reconciliation.

Yes definitely, but if they don't, and Nassun is still under the influence of Schaffa and/or Steel, and they are trying to make whatever happen that involves no good outcomes for the humans...although Nassun is smarter than that. Hmm.

Is that short story online anywhere? Need more Stillness in my life!
posted by quaking fajita at 1:36 PM on September 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

It is!
posted by tobascodagama at 4:20 PM on September 14, 2016

My thoughts:
- Stone Eaters remind me greatly of the Weeping Angels from Doctor Who, in that they move lighting quick or not at all. I'm sure that's part of the inspiration but they're fleshed (heh) out interestingly. Also, did no one else catch the mention of the "Familiar Alabaster Stone-Eater" that appeared after Essun closed the Obelisk Gate? I'm looking forward to learning more about that particular transformation.
- Schaffa is very interesting. In the first book he murdered a fellow Guardian that got too excited about Damaya's encounter with the socket. Now it seems like Schaffa and the two other Guardians he's collected are damaged the same way that Guardian was. We know Guardians have chunks of the Evil Earth in them, and it seems the Fulcrum was designed to teach Orogens wrong on purpose to prevent them from learning the real extent of their power. Anyone that shows potential in that direction is attacked as Syenite and Alabaster were in Alia. Anyway, Schaffa is now Going His Own Way resisting his "core stone" and trying to teach Nassun to connect with the Obelisks. Why? At the beginning it sounded like he was going to end up fully beholden to the thing inside him as a result of surviving drowning. Is Gray Man/Steel an agent of the Evil Earth and "crash the moon kill everything" is what it wants? Is Shaffa grooming Nassun to that purpose? At times it sounds more like he's pushing her toward Essun's path.
- Just what exactly IS the Evil Earth? I have a theory, which is it's an alien presence that was introduced to the Earth when the "giant impact" event occurred forming it. Part of the Evil Earth is in the Moon, part in the Earth. It wants to be together again, but was satisfied with proximity of orbit. When we discovered Orogeny/magic we fucked everything up and kicked the moon into a massive elliptical orbit, which prompted the Evil Earth to wake up and start kicking ass.
- I still don't like Essun, or Nassun for that matter, as people. I complained last discussion how Essun is just a bad unlikable person and she still is a bad person, but she's trying harder to be good and only made a few intensely shitty decisions this time. I still wouldn't trust her with a world-spanning magical network. Nassun is a child who has been deeply damaged by her mother's upbringing and her father's recent behavior. I can't blame her for being the way she is but she's still a tiny sociopath who I also don't trust with the power she has. After the incredible damage done to the earth by Alabaster and how shitty almost everyone is in this story frankly I feel I could be swayed by Steel's "just end it all" philosophy. should I expect Essun to turn to stone heroically fixing the moon and turning the earth back to something capable of sustaining human life? Do I sort of expect the twist that this all actually takes place in the distant past somehow? Maybe.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 6:49 AM on April 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Yes, the thing I'm really looking forward to in The Stone Sky is finding out how Essun and Nassun will reconcile both their own relationship and the different directions they're being pushed in regarding the Moon. Jemisin's Hundred Thousand Kingdoms books had a way of giving you the ending you expected but not in the way you expected, so I suspect this trilogy will end with the Moon in a stable orbit and the Evil Earth quieted, but I won't even begin to guess how the story gets us there.

As for the nature of the Evil Earth itself, that's a fascinating question. So far, we mostly have Alabaster's description to go on. He seems to believe that the Evil Earth is a thinking, feeling entity. And he might be right!

But it's also possible that the Evil Earth is just a really strong concentration of "magic", and his experience is akin to those experiments that induced feelings of a "ghostly presence" in people by electrode stimulation. The sessapinae are sensory organs that can be overloaded like any other, right? And they're particularly attuned to detecting movements of the earth, so being surrounded by thousands of miles of mantle and crust must be a particularly overwhelming experience to a strong orogene.

That's my headcanon, at least. Corepoint was clearly a project to drill to the core of the earth, and I believe that it succeeded. I also believe that the silver splinters in the Guardians are pieces of core metal brought up from Corepoint. The "Socket" in the center of the Fulcrum might be another entrance to the Corepoint hole, which they use to obtain more splinters when they need to make new Guardians. Or maybe they can't make new splinters, which is why Schaffa makes a point to retrieve the splinter from the Guardian he kills in The Fifth Season. Which might not be true, and even if it is might not be relevant.

(The Earth's core is a nickel-iron alloy, according to modern science, and such an alloy would look similar to the splinters. Wikipedia's photo is especially provocative. Jemisin in her prefaces has said that the idea for this series came from a workshop she attended at NASA about incorporating science into speculative fiction, so I tend to assume that everything about The Stillness matches modern or perhaps slightly speculative scientific understanding until explicitly contradicted. In that context, I really love the fact that Alabaster starts describing things that a "hard sci fi" writer would call "nanomachines" and then tells Essun that they're called "magic". Because that has about as much relationship to reality and about as much explanatory power. ;))
posted by tobascodagama at 7:56 AM on April 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

I finally catching up with this series, and I'm still digesting this book. Not sure how I feel about it, beyond an overall impression of enjoying it but I feel confused by some stuff - which might just be the side effect of bringing the book along on a family trip, so reading happened but maybe not at a deep enough level. Just wanted to respond to this:

I'm sort of terrified about the next book because it seems like everything is leading up to a showdown between Essun and Nassun and I like them both :(

Father Earth needs to be reunited with his child, the Moon. Essun needs to be reunited with Nassun. This book really laid the groundwork for that, I think. I like the parallel, because the story has had a focus overall on unity over dissociation (Essun's stance about roggas being just as human; the idea of comms in general - that you need to be together to survive). Because without that unity, without being together in some type of inter-dependent relationship - as people, as communities, etc, you have the Seasons. So I think it will be a showdown, but not one of two superheroes flinging each other about as much as two broken people coming to terms with that, and with each other, and finding a new relationship - just as orogene must with human and stone-eater.

(hm. A random thought: Father Earth and Moon, a two-body relationship. Orogene and human, a two-body relationship. But...Father Earth hates humans for taking the moon away - it's a three-body are orogenes, humans, and stone-eaters...)
posted by nubs at 8:36 AM on August 21, 2019 [3 favorites]

I mean, she gave Nassun and Essen two swords. You know there's going to be some kind of duel, and I broke into a grin when Nassun got hers. But we can hope for the clash ending in an orbiting at a safe distance. Parent and child need some space between them to be healthy. I love how the layers and metaphors have been set up to reinforce each other.

One thing Jemisin has done a masterful job of, IMO, is giving the reader enough answers as the series progresses. I quit reading His Dark Materials after the second book because Pullman was way too coy about what the Dust was. You have to give enough answers to keep the reader engaged.

There are still plenty of questions to answer, and the middle book is always the trickiest, because you have to pose enough new questions to be interesting, but you have to be able to tie up everything (well, not necessarily EVERYTHING, but enough) at the end. As a GM in RPGs, I know it's easy to keep tossing in new ideas--but tying everything together is the really hard task.

I love that the stage is set for the final book and I'm glad I don't have to wait for it.
posted by rikschell at 1:58 PM on September 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

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