Review: The Obelisk Gate

A quick recap of the setting of N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, of which The Obelisk Gate is the second book: the continent known (presumably ironically) as the Stillness, as far as anyone knows the only continent on the planet, is riven by constant violent tectonic activity which, every few centuries, causes a period of catastrophic climate change – a Season – which devastates food chains, acidifies the oceans and subjects humanity to a few decades of nuclear winter. The society of the Stillness has one weapon against the Seasons: orogenes, people born with the ability to control the earth, stilling earthquakes – or setting them off. The orogenes are absolutely vital to the survival of the Stillness, but they’re also feared and hated by ordinary people.

As told in the first novel, The Fifth Season, the Stillness is experiencing a Season to end all Seasons: the orogenes know that it will last thousands of years, not the decades or, at best, bare century the towns of the Stillness have prepared for. As The Fifth Season rather starkly has it: this is the way the world ends, for the last time.

The Obelisk Gate, then, is very definitely a Middle Book, somewhat overshadowed both by the explosive, devastating intricacy of The Fifth Season and by the emotional heights its sequel The Stone Sky reaches.

Partly, I think, this is intentional. Gate is a pause, a period of calm; it’s a novel about unfolding, experimenting, building. Essun, the orogene protagonist of The Fifth Season, is learning things about the Stillness, about orogeny and about the vast, mysterious obelisks that have floated in the Stillness’ skies for millennia uncounted. She’s also navigating the politics of Castrima, the fledgling community that’s taken her in, more or less without her consent: its orogene leader Ykka wants it to be a place where orogenes and non-orogenes can coexist peacefully. This project is fraught, the Castrimans constantly on a knife-edge of uncertainty; but it’s ultimately a plotline about home-making and community-building, and it grounds the novel in a specific place and time. It gives it a stability The Fifth Season and The Stone Sky lack.

Meanwhile, Essun’s orogene daughter Nassun is being taken by her father (who murdered Essun’s three-year-old son in The Fifth Season when he showed signs of orogeny) to a place called Found Moon, far in the south of the Stillness, where, it’s rumoured, people can be cured of orogeny. There’s an air of unmistakable menace here: we suspect that the “cure” for orogeny is nothing of the kind, that there’s some other reason orogenes are being lured to Found Moon, and that it has something to do with the systematic ways in which the Stillness has, over millennia, controlled and oppressed orogenes. And, once we’ve suspected that, we think about real-world “cures” that have nothing to do with medicine and everything to do with oppression, hatred and fear.

One of the things I really appreciate about The Obelisk Gate, and the Broken Earth trilogy as a whole, is that the oppression it describes is both general and specific. By which I mean: we can read elements of homophobia, racism or sexism into the oppression the orogenes face. It is like homophobia in that orogeny is not obvious, in that many orogenes survive by hiding a vital part of themselves, in that orogenes passing as non-orogenes have to make daily decisions about who they can trust, who is safe to reveal themselves to. It’s like racism in that orogenes are subject to forced breeding programmes, in that they’re literally and deliberately dehumanised, in that orogeny is hereditary. It’s like sexism in that the Stillness depends on orogenes for its continued existence, but refuses to recognise them as full people.

At the same time, orogeny is clearly not straightforwardly a metaphor for queerness or not-white-ness or not-male-ness in a world that sees those things as suspect: it encompasses and describes elements of all those experiences, but it’s also its own thing. Which is what allows the novel to have great representation as well as horrific oppression. The Obelisk Gate prominently features a trans woman in a relationship with a cis woman (and queerness in general goes unremarked); the vast majority of its leading characters are women, and the Stillness seems generally to have gender equality; and brown or dark skin is the default, with white skin drawing comment and surprise. While it’s worth noting that The Fifth Season does destroy its central queer relationship, The Obelisk Gate goes some way to proving that it’s possible to tell powerful and relevant stories about oppression without either co-opting the experiences of actual minorities to demonstrate how Oppressed they are, or downplaying the destructiveness of systematic institutional and cultural bias.

That was a long tangent, and one I didn’t quite intend to take. But it strikes me that I haven’t actually really been talking about The Obelisk Gate itself very much, so much as Jemisin’s trilogy as a whole. Gate doesn’t really stand alone. It’s a bridge, a set-up, the quiet in the eye of the hurricane. There are lovely things in its pages, and horrible ones too (content warning for some body horror which I had to skim-read). There is love and the joy of discovery and fear of the other and the brutality of survival. But some of those brilliant things get lost in the sheer intensity of the first and last novels, and that’s a shame.

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