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 Obelisk Gate takes place on a single supercontinent, the Stillness, which suffers from catastrophic climate change every few centuries (the so-called “Fifth Season”). The book continues forward from an especially bad Fifth Season, one that may become an apocalypse. It follows two main characters: a mother and daughter, both of whom are magically talented (“orogenes”), who were separated just before the most recent Fifth Season. The plot revolves around their journey to find each other again, and their efforts to discover why Fifth Seasons exist.
The story resumes soon after Nassun’s father discovers her brother is an orogene. In a blind rage, and deducing Nassun is likely an orogene as well, he beats Nassun’s brother to death and abducts her as he flees Tirimo, their hometown. He intends to take Nassun south, where he has heard of a group of Guardians that can “cure” Nassun of orogeny.
Nassun has always been close to her father, due largely to her strict and unforgiving relationship with her mother Essun, who has been secretly teaching her to hone her orogenic abilities in order to avoid detection. Nevertheless, she fears her father, who now is aware she is an orogene as well. Her father strikes her early in the journey, and is immediately overcome with guilt; Nassun, however, learns to harden her heart against him, and stops viewing him as her true father at all.
The Fifth Season triggered by this event steadily worsens as they travel. Finally, they reach the promised settlement: a town called Found Moon, administered by a group of Guardians, though not affiliated with the Fulcrum. The town is led by Schaffa, who has used it to shelter young orogenes during the years since he arrived.
Nassun and her father settle in Found Moon, and Nassun begins to rapidly advance through the ranks of the makeshift Fulcrum the Guardians have established. She forms a particularly strong bond with Schaffa, who is fiercely protective of her and becomes her father figure in lieu of her biological father. She begins to understand that orogeny, in contrast to the teachings of her mother and the Guardians, is not just about moving heat energy from one place to another; she learns to perceive a mysterious silver energy, generated by living things, that underpins all of her orogenic powers. Her abilities increase to the point where she begins to learn to draw power from one of the obelisks floating nearby, much as her mother had many years earlier. Her use of this power causes her to accidentally kill one of her classmates by turning him to stone while suffering a nightmare.
This is where I’ve abandoned the book.
I totally understand the raving reviews it got but I, for the life of me, could not continue. I did not know there was another book before this in the Broken Earth trilogy and perhaps, if I had started with the other one, I would have gone farther in this one.
It felt like the first half of this story was mostly a series of people whining and complaining about the various ills of this miserable world. The first person POV is Jemesin’s idea to deliberately disorient the reader at the start of every chapter.
Utter disappointment. I should just have quit earlier.
About the Author
N. K. Jemisin is a Brooklyn author who won the Hugo Award for Best Novel for The Fifth Season, which was also a New York Times Notable Book of 2015. She previously won the Locus Award for her first novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and her short fiction and novels have been nominated multiple times for Hugo, World Fantasy, and Nebula awards, and shortlisted for the Crawford and the James Tiptree, Jr. awards.
She is a science fiction and fantasy reviewer for the New York Times, and you can find her online at nkjemisin.com.