For years and years, my roommate was a struggling actress, so I spent a fair amount of time hanging around the theater after shows, listening to the actors talk to the audience. The two of us always laughed at that question every actor is eventually asked: how do you remember all those words? I suspect I’m going to do something similar as I talk about N.K. Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate: how can something as large and complex as this story exist in her head, and how does she manage to tell it to me so beautifully? I can’t stand how much I love The Broken Earth trilogy so far.
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The Obelisk Gate, like its award-vying predecessor The Fifth Season, feels big. More than that, the books feel complex, like a metal-and-stone orrery charting the entirety of the Stillness, the continent upon which they are set: its world and sky, the layers of its past, and much that occurs under the skin of its people. The first book starts at the apocalypse, one final ending on a world whose geology brings them as regularly as the tides. A man, an orogene with the power to move earth and metal, raises his hands and splits the world asunder. The people of Stillness are used to such endings—a few years, a decade or two of scarcity and monsters—but this “Fifth Season” could last millennia.
The Fifth Season follows several people through the complex and shifting history that leads up to the cataclysm, and into the first months of the newly broken earth. In The Obelisk Gate, we live through the deepening horror of how well and truly destroyed everything and everyone is, whoo boy. The twining plots follow Essun and Nassun, mother and daughter orogenes separated at the end of the world (though actually, crucially, just before). We know that Essun’s husband, Nassun’s father, kicked Nassun’s brother to death when he found out the boy was magically gifted (like Essun, like Nassun). He took Nassun away from her mother in order to “cure” her of her orogeny. After the cataclysm (the murder of her son, the cracking of the world), Essun walks an ash-filled road to find her surviving child.
As the story resumes, it wends backwards, joining father and daughter on the road, traveling south. Nassun had always had a difficult relationship with her mother, who trained her in her secret orogeny with a strict and striking hand. It seemed impossible that her gentle father would react violently to the discovery of their powers, until it happened. Her father is likewise broken by his violence, and his relationship with the girl feels wobbly and dangerous. They meet up with a man from her mother’s past, a teacher of sorts, though he is also altered and dangerous—maybe even more dangerous than he was when he knew Essun. Nassun is a still point in the middle of truly terrifying currents.
When we last saw her, Essun had been taken in by a community that at least nominally accepted roggas (as orogenes are called, derisively.) The community lives in a geode deep in the earth, a structure undoubtedly of ancient and occult origin. She and her travelling companions—a boy who is not a child, and a woman who has strange talents of her own—attempt to fit in, to grieve and survive this bleak new world. Essen also finds someone from her past: a teacher of sorts, a lover, the strongest orogene in the world. The man who broke the world as it broke him.
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There’s a lot about teachers and students, parents and children in this novel. Essun was tutored in her orogeny in a system that was functionally municipal slavery: orogenes brought together in an order, the Fulcrum, which nurtured their often prodigious talents and controlled every aspect of their lives. For the good of the orogene, or so said—but then also, the good of the country, as the captive orogenes quelled earthquakes and shaped the continent. The Fifth Season charts Essun’s path into and out of the Fulcrum’s brutal instruction. Her daughter, Nassun, though a “wild rogga” (an orogenes not Fulcrum-trained) was still tutored in the Fulcrum’s harsh methods by her mother, in secret. The truly horrible things done by orogenes, by herself, confirm for Essun how necessary such instruction is.
But as Nassun moves through the broken earth, with her broken father and her mother’s broken tutor, she begins to learn her orogeny in ways the Fulcrum never understood. Essun is likewise confronted by her past and the limits of her understanding of her own power. They two also begin to understand why Stillness is beset with Seasons, why the world keeps ending and ending, and how they may begin to heal it. The environment they inhabit isn’t a hopeful one—darkening with ash, dying—and no revelation or understanding of it is going to be simple and easy. There’s no easy fix. But there exists a glimmer of hope regardless, as Essun and Nassun progress through the terrible and shattering events of this mid-trilogy installment. (Which is, you know, a little messed up, because some of the stuff they do along the way is awful. In another book, our protagonists would be villains.)
The Fifth Season was absolutely dazzling in its complex structure and origami plot; I shivered as it folded to reveal itself at the end. The Obelisk Gate is no less effective, but its impact is felt at a deeper level—down under the skin, deep in the viscera of this broken earth.