REVIEW: N.K. Jemisin is on track for more awards with ‘The Obelisk Gate’

obelisk gate
(cover design by Wendy Chan/Hachette Book Group)

I wrote about N.K. Jemisin’s excellent The Fifth Season (2015) in the context of the Hugo Award controversy. That controversy involved efforts by Brad Torgersen of the self-proclaimed Sad Puppies and Vox Day (whose real name is Theodore Beale) of the Rapid Puppies to stuff the ballots for the World Science Fiction Convention’s prestigious Hugo Awards. Torgersen claimed to be protesting against awards going to works that are “niche, academic, overtly to the Left in ideology and flavor, and ultimately lacking what might be described as visceral, gut-level, swashbuckling fun.” Day had previously leveled a viciously racist rant directly against Jemisin.

In a beautiful bit of poetic justice, The Fifth Season just won the 2016 Hugo Award for Best Novel. And the book’s sequel, The Obelisk Gate, may have the inside track on the 2017 award.

the obelisk gate hugo award

*(Note: This review contains spoilers for The Fifth Season but not The Obelisk Gate.)

The first book used three point-of-view characters, each with the gift—or curse—of orogeny, the ability to manipulate seismic activity in the tectonically-volatile world ironically named the Stillness. By end of the novel, it becomes clear that all three protagonists are the same person, Essun, at different stages in her life. The Obelisk Gate largely abandons flashbacks, instead carrying the story forward into Essun’s future. Essun continues her quest to find her daughter, but along the way feels pulled to Castrima, an underground community where orogenes are not hated and feared.

The second protagonist is Essun’s daughter Nassun. The event that set the plot of both novels in motion was the discovery by Jija, Nassun’s father, that Uche, Nassun’s brother, was also an orogene. When Jija learns of Uche’s orogeny, he beats the boy to death. He regains control of himself and spares Nassun. He takes the girl and flees from Essun, searching for a rumored “cure” for own orogeny. To be out on the road during a Season—a period of at least six months (often years) of winter—is perilous. Essun must not only navigate these dangers, but also her own burgeoning powers—and her hate-filled father.

In addition to Essun and Nassun, The Obelisk Gate features two other point-of-view characters. Schaffa had been Essun’s guardian, one tasked with teaching her control and killing her if she ever lost control. Nearly destroyed in the climax of The Fifth Season, Schaffa struggles to remember who is and begins to question his very purpose.

The final point-of-view character is Essun’s companion from the road in The Fifth Season, Hoa. He is a stone-eater, a bizarre race of beings made from stone, and his role and that of his people becomes clearer here.

Author N.K. Jemisin

Like The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate is a fantasy novel that has much to say about the real world. Jija’s search for a cure for Nassun’s orogeny reminded me of gay conversion therapy. Another orogene later describes “outing” herself. In a pivotal scene, Essun thinks to herself, “You just want your life to matter,” the same yearning at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement. But she must confront a society that feels she is part of “an inferior and dependent species.” Indeed, by law, “any degree of orogenic ability must be assumed to negate its corresponding personhood.”

Essun’s fight to assert her humanity drives the narrative in this series. This is not merely a political aspiration, but a deeply personal one. And so these books never feel polemical. Jemisin’s characters aren’t symbols; they are complex and conflicted human beings who want only to live in peace. But in the Stillness, as in the real world, sometimes you have to fight for peace.

About Matt Hlinak

Matt Hlinak
Matt Hlinak is an administrator at Dominican University, just outside of Chicago. He teaches courses in English and legal studies. His short stories have appeared in 'Sudden Flash Youth' (Persea Books 2011) and several literary magazines. 'DoG' (2012) is his debut novel.

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