October 5, 2016

Review: The Obelisk Gate

The Obelisk Gate The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the sequel to this year's Hugo Award winner for Best Novel, The Fifth Season. That book was the best book I read last year, and I was thrilled when it took home the rocket. This second book of the trilogy is, I think, just as good as the first, but in a different way.

(Warning: Spoilers follow. Proceed at your own risk.)

Second books in trilogies are often accused of being boring, or not as good as the first. To be sure, they have a necessary and unavoidable task, which is to set up the third and final book. Nevertheless, if handled right, they can become their own unique thing, especially if they take the story in unexpected directions. A prime example of this is the middle book of Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch trilogy, Ancillary Sword. I am of the minority who liked that book better than the first volume, the multiple award-winning Ancillary Justice, and not the least because the sharp right turn it took and the seeds it planted paid off beautifully in the final book. The Obelisk Gate doesn't take this particular tack--the story continues as first established in The Fifth Season, and the narrative is more conventional (which is a relative term, as the POVs are either second person or third person, present tense). The protagonist Essun's chapters are still told in second person, but we don't have the braided three-character narrative, which is gradually revealed to be one person (Essun) under different names and at different points in her life.

What The Obelisk Gate does do, and do damn well, is take a spectacularly deep dive into its characters: Essun, her daughter Nassun, and the stone eater, Hoa, who is revealed to be the actual narrator of the story, with his sections in first person (and in first person as if talking to Essun--I'm not sure what "tense" that would be). Nassun's chapters are heartbreaking, the story of a little girl who is gradually forced to become what she thinks is a monster, a monster who will destroy everyone she loves. This is part of the setup for the third book, where I'm afraid, if I'm reading this right, Essun and her daughter will square off in a deadly, world-changing conflict.

This book also answers a great many questions raised by the first book (and asks still more). When I read the first book, I thought it had a very science-fiction feel, with the heavy emphasis on geology and what seemed to be psychic powers. In this book, the concept of "magic" as the basis for orogeny is introduced, although it's a unique definition of "magic" that, to me, still has a definite SF feel. (Your mileage may vary, which is why I tagged this one "science fantasy.") I love it when things are explained and those explanations make sense within the context of the story, as these do.

Overall, this book is not quite the shocker that The Fifth Season was. That book shook its readers (or at least this one) to the core, with its rich setting, its assured writing, its spot-on pacing and characterizations, and its unique structure. Now, in this book, the settings, characters and conflicts are set, so it is a quieter sort of story than its predecessor. Nevertheless, it is a very rewarding tale in its own right, and I can hardly wait for the final volume.

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