It’s astonishing to recall that N. K. Jemisin’s impressive debut novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was released a mere six years ago since it’s difficult to imagine a time when she wasn’t one of my favorite authors. In the last few years, she’s published six more novels—the rest of the Inheritance trilogy, the Dreamblood duology, and now, the first two books in The Broken Earth trilogy—and has proven to be one of the more consistently excellent writers I’ve read. Three of her novels (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, and The Killing Moon) were among my favorites, and now, I’m adding a fourth book by her to that list: her latest release, The Obelisk Gate, which even surpasses these other beloved novels as her best yet.
The Fifth Season, the first book in The Broken Earth trilogy, is a brilliant book and a strong start to the series, but I didn’t find it as thoroughly engaging as other books by N. K. Jemisin that I’ve read. Though the writing, worldbuilding, and characterization were all fantastic, there were some parts that didn’t quite hold my attention even though I figured their importance would be revealed later in the trilogy. When the book ended, it seemed as though it was just starting to get to the heart of the story so I expected that the next may be more captivating—and was it ever! The Obelisk Gate expands on the first, tying everything together masterfully, and is a rare book that kept me glued to the pages from start to finish and reflecting on it even after I’d put it down.
I’m not going to discuss the plot since I don’t want to give away anything too earth-shattering; suffice to say it picks up where the last book left off and also provides more insight into Nassun and Schaffa. The characterization is incredible: each character is complex and crafted with care to show them at their best and their worst. In the hands of many authors, a character like Schaffa would be evil with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Though many of his actions are terrible, it’s also clear that he does care about some of his charges and believes he is helping them. The bad he’s done is not overshadowed or forgotten, but he’s a fully human character capable of a range of actions and complicated views and emotions—in fact, this can be said of all the characters.
The connections between characters and the examination of the way people are shaped by their experiences makes this all the more compelling. The influence of others is a particularly powerful theme in this novel, especially as shown through the exploration of the mother-daughter relationship between Essun and Nassun. In The Fifth Season, Essun’s concern for her daughter may make one imagine a caring relationship, but the reality is that Essun has made many mistakes with her daughter in the name of trying to protect her. Nassun’s relationship with both her parents is heartbreaking: she feels unloved by the mother who trains her so harshly and always felt closer to her father until the day he discovered she was an orogene. Later, Nassun begins to understand the training that molded her mother, and she herself is much like Essun though she’d prefer not to be.
In addition to being personal, The Obelisk Gate is epic and this manages to balance both quite well. More information is revealed about the stone eaters, obelisks, and the Seasons, and the way the author parcels out the details leading to revelations is logical and organized—and enticing enough to keep me wanting to know more! Every aspect of this novel is thoughtful, from how life forms would respond to Seasons to the ways people would try to survive. I also loved that it delved into how different people learn and the advantages and disadvantages of structured instruction. Essun feels that she has greater knowledge than others due to being Fulcrum trained. Though she does often know how to do tasks self-trained orogenes do not, she finds that she doesn’t understand quite as much as she thinks she does. Others sometimes discover new ways of doing orogeny that she never thought to do since she had teachers who told her how to think about orogeny and what was possible—teachers who sometimes didn’t want her to know exactly what was possible.
The writing is also phenomenal, sometimes chatty and straightforward and often perceptive. Although the prose in the first book was also lovely, I thought this one had a lot more emotional resonance since it seemed to probe more deeply into the characters’ psyches. Nassun’s perspective was especially affecting since she’s so young and feels so rejected, and some of her thoughts were especially heartbreaking, such as when she was contemplating that her father’s love came “wrapped in pain” after his discovery that she was an orogene.
The only thing that bothered me about the entire book was that I occasionally wondered how it could effectively portray some of what the characters were thinking and feeling, given who is narrating the story. Sometimes it’s reasonable to believe the narrator would have an idea of this, but there were a couple of details that I thought unlikely to even be considered by the one telling the story. However, this is a minuscule issue since I’d much rather have a view into the characters’ innermost thoughts than the alternative (and the trilogy isn’t over yet so perhaps there will be an explanation by the end!).
In short, The Obelisk Gate is an excellent book: the best book I’ve read by N. K. Jemisin, the best book I’ve read this year, and one of the best books I’ve ever read period. The writing, worldbuilding, characterization, and storytelling are all outstanding, blending together to create a fascinating story simultaneously large-scale and intimate. It’s a truly unforgettable novel, one I’m still turning over in my mind a month after reading it, and I cannot wait to read the conclusion.
My Rating: 10/10
Where I got my reading copy: ARC from the publisher.
Reviews of Other Book(s) in This Series: