Throwback Thursday: The Obelisk Gate

Book cover: The Obelisk Gate - N K Jemisin (a floral boss in pink/purple)No Season is forever, but this one promises to be longer than humanity can endure. In the underground refuge of Castrima, Essun must master powers that might save her new people. But a powerful city state has emerged from the ashes of Sanzed, and far to the south, the Fulcrum is not yet dead. The Season is not all Castrima must survive…

The end of the world picks up where it left off, with Essun and her companions in the remarkable geode of Castrima. Essun instinctively mistrusts the safety of the crystal city and the warmth of their welcome. She’s been trained by a lifetime of bad experiences to expect rejection and betrayal – but the technology that keeps Castrima supplied in fresh air, water and heat won’t function without orogenes to power it. Safe below ground from acid rains and toxic ashfall, Castrima is the perfect refuge.

Unless you’re an orogene, and have some idea of just how long the Season may last.

The remorseless horror of the Stillness only gets worse in a Season. The Obelisk Gate doesn’t shy away from spelling out the inevitable unpleasant decisions ahead. Sooner or later, there’s only going to be one source of protein: the real question is who will eventually be eating who. If anyone lives that long.

Because Castrima may be the best-hidden settlement, but it’s certainly not the only one left. Scouts disappear. Bodies are posted at the borders. Pockets of humanity are staking out their claims, ready to fight for control of what’s left. Given the history of the Sanzed empire and the harsh nature of the stonelore, it’s only a matter of time before Castrima comes under threat. When it comes, it neatly cuts through any confidence that there’s nothing a wary orogene can’t handle and uses fear and suspicion to divide Castrima’s population.

If Jemisin is mining familiar post-apocalyptic tropes with these storylines, she does it well. She keeps her focus tight and personal: the difficult decisions and the toll they take on those who make them; the way they strain relationships between orogenes and stills; Essun’s unwilling but inevitable involvement with Castrima’s leadership as the most powerful orogene in the city (except for Alabaster, whose condition has curtailed his freedom to exercise his powers).

If (like me) you get over-invested in world-building, The Obelisk Gate is like catnip. Jemisin has thought about – and exploits – all the angles. Developments feel natural, even inevitable. Some may find The Obelisk Gate meanders in the time it spends bringing Castrima to glittering life, but I couldn’t get enough of it, each new development leaving me with as many questions as answers – even though Castrima is framed from the start as a distraction, a place Essun knows she shouldn’t linger.

And yet she does.

It gives Essun space to reinvent herself again – this time while we watch – and for Alabaster to teach her a new set of difficult truths.

I love the thorny relationship between these two. They know one another so well, and are so closely tied together they struggle to name it love, hate, respect or resentment. Each has reason to hate the other; and yet nobody else will ever understand either of them as well as they understand each other.

Alabaster Tenring – unlike Essun – has a sense of her true potential. And while Alabaster broke the world, he needs Essun to finish the job for him.

As for what Alabaster wants her to do – Essun too, could change the world. And – maybe, just maybe – she could save it.

Alabaster has spent the last ten years in the company of Antimony learning the secrets of stone eaters and obelisks. Now it’s Essun’s turn – if she can discipline herself to learn fast enough and master her turbulent feelings.

While Castrima’s woes and Essun’s education had me on the edge of my seat, they’re only half the story. There’s a second narrative intertwined with Essun’s in this second volume – that of Nassun, Essun’s daughter.

That’s right: she isn’t dead. Yet.

Where Essun has been driven by her guilt for the death of her sons and desperate to find her daughter, Nassun is just as happy her mother is far away. Essun’s harsh lessons in self-control will help Nassun survive her father Jija, who oscillates between hateful fear and a desire to ‘save’ his beloved little girl from herself (yes, I shuddered); but Nassun has scars on her hand to match Essun’s – and little affection for the woman who gave them to her. Essun’s love came with the same price as Schaffa’s. Jija’s has an even higher price.

Drawn south by a rumour of a cure for orogenes, Nassun’s story is hard to read without flinching both for its emotional loading and the unavoidable conversion therapy parallels. When the supposed healer turns out to be none other than Schaffa himself, things seem set to take a darker turn (and they do, if not the one I expected). While Essun’s storyline unpacks the nature of obelisks and stone eaters, Nassun’s reveals the lore of the Guardians and Father Earth.

The sheer, mind-boggling scope of this series is dazzling. This is easily one of the most audacious fantasies I’ve ever read (not least for the way it combines social commentary and emotional depth with its multiple levels of world-building) and I’m quite clear that I won’t fully appreciate it until I read it again. I was transfixed by The Obelisk Gate, emotionally engaged with both mother and daughter, aching for each as they grow into their orogenic powers and learn to accept who they are – and what they can do.

I can’t wait to read The Stone Sky.