The Obelisk Gate by N K Jemisin

Orbit, 2016, 416 p.

 The Obelisk Gate cover

Second books of trilogies can be difficult to negotiate – for reader and writer. Jemisin compounded this problem for herself by the triple narrative in the first book, The Fifth Season, which featured three story strands concentrating on the experiences of Damaya, Syenite and Essun whose link was only confirmed late on. The trick she pulled off there could not be repeated in the next instalment hence the narration here is slightly less involved. One – apparently second person – strand carries on the story of Essun from The Fifth Season, another focuses on her daughter, Nassun, for whom Essun was searching in the first book. Once again each chapter has an epigraph (derived from stonelore) but only at its end. There are also occasional “interludes” set in a different typeface. Nevertheless Jemisin is still doing unusual stuff with narrative viewpoint here as it becomes clear that the second person sections are not in fact being related from an outside point of view nor as if by Essun but by someone – or something – else in the overall story.

The thrust of the narrative here is of both Essun and Nassun trying to find or secure places of safety while the latest Season of uncertainty, seismic turmoil and climate calamity unfolds. Nassun’s main danger, though, comes from her father, who hates orogenes/rogga so much that he killed her younger brother Uche before stealing Nassun away and is unwilling to accept that Nassun is one – and an adept at that. Essun is still being guided by Alabaster to use her orogenic powers to nullify the prospect of Seasons ever recurring. This has something to do with Father Earth being annoyed that the Moon was removed from its orbit which in turn destabilised Earth’s geology. The Moon is due to return close to Earth and it might be possible to change its trajectory to ensure its recapture. The strange obelisks that allow orogenic power to be focused are a key to this. Throw in the mysterious stone-eaters and there is a lot of SF/fantasy meat to chew on.

According to Essun’s now failing tutor Alabaster the ancient word for the stuff of orogeny is … magic: but Essun locates it as a silvery stuff in people’s bloodstreams. Magic, she believes, derives from life – that which is alive, or was alive, or even which was “alive so many ages ago that it has turned into something else”. The orogene aspect of the whole tale is of course a commentary on prejudice. Yet in this scenario the ordinary people would be right to be wary of orogenes, who do, after all, have the power to kill – and as a reflex at that. And in The Obelisk Gate the skills Essun develops in using the obelisks means that she might as well be a God(dess.)

There was enough here to make me want to read the final book but as to whether The Obelisk Gate deserved to win the Hugo (as it did, Jemisin’s second such in consecutive years) that’s another matter.

Pedant’s corner:- No opening quote marks when a chapter begins with a piece of direct speech. “None of them pierce his body” (None pierces,) “for all intents and purposes” (it’s usually “to all intents and purposes”.) “Within the compound are a handful of” (is a handful,) naivete (choose; English naivety or French naiveté, not the mongrel naivete,) herbivarous (herbivorous.)

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