I’m finding it hard to start this review. Not because this book is bad. It’s really good, equitable to the first book in the series. I think my struggles from trying to talk about the middle book without giving away too many spoilers. I’ll do my best and edit out as many spoilers as I can before this review goes live. But this is a warning that this review may venture into spoiler territory.
Set in the Stillness once again, The Obelisk Gate, primarily follows two characters, Essun and her missing daughter Nassun, though there are brief interludes from Hoa, the stone-eater who follows Essun. (Read the first book to learn why Damaya and Syenite “disappear” from the narrative.) While Essun settles into and becomes an important part of the comm she joined towards the end of the first book, Castrima, Nassun’s story takes place partially in the timeline of the first book where she and her father, Jija, flee their former comm, Tirimo, after Jija murders Nassun’s younger brother, Uche.
Nassun and Essun’s journey mirror each other in this book and we once again closely see the discrimination orogenes face, though a lot of it is aimed at young children. Like her mother, Nassun leaves her home, traveling the roads just as the worst Season ever begins. On her travels, she learns harsh lessons quickly in order to survive. Despite the apocalypse happening around her, the greatest danger Nassun faces comes from her father, a man who wants to love his daughter but can’t move past her orogeny abilities. And again, like her mother, Nassun finds a comm that appears to accept orogenes, though the orogenes of Found Moon are under the watchful gazes of former Fulcrum Guardians, while the orogenes of Castrima are only accountable to themselves. By the end of the book, Nassun and Essun learn such starkly different lessons, despite the similarity of their situations. For Essun, she starts to open herself up, very, very, very slowly and once again rely on people, while Nassun sees the world for how ugly it is. It is lukewarm, but Essun embraces her new comm and family, though she still aches to find her daughter. But Nassun casts aside her former family and embrace one person, her Guardian Schaffa, as the only family she needs.
We also learn more about Nassun and Essun’s complicated, strained relationship and it’s heartbreaking to realize that this mother-daughter relationship may never be repaired, despite Essun’s best efforts. A lot of the animosity is held by Nassun who couldn’t understand why her mother was harsh towards her. (Though as readers, we understand that Essun’s treatment of her daughter is her way of ensuring Nassun’s safety and ability to hide her orogeny.) By the end of the book, Nassun and Essun are once again traveling, though in opposites direction, a final highlight of the rift between them. When I finished The Obelisk Gate I was curious about the potential resolution of this narrative arc. It’s Essun’s driving force throughout the series, but by the end of the second book, it’s clear that Nassun cares little about her mother and is actively working against what her mother desires. (There is a final resolution in the last book and it’s satisfactory, though unexpected.)
In my review of the first book, I mentioned that Essun was my favorite character. But in The Obelisk Gate Nassun is the character I was most interested in. (Though to be fully transparent, I love all of these characters. This is one series where I would be unable to list my all-time favorite character. They’re all so rich!) We know from the first book that the people of the Stillness actively try to keep orogenes from using their full abilities. But in this book, we see this fear and discrimination at a more personal level. For most of the book, Nassun must tiptoe around her father’s anger and manipulate him to keep herself safe. But as time goes on, Nassun learns to love her use of orogeny (which may explain how she’s capable of such advance orogeny feats) and she doesn’t understand why she should be punished for who she is. Her evolution is fascinating, not only because she grows into such a strong character, but also because it sends her down a path where she decides the world is beyond saving and this places her at odds with her mother. I loved Nassun dearly and I desperately wanted her to find someone to love and protect her to keep her from the path that she goes down.
Once again, N.K. Jemisin manages to weave a tale that is equal parts emotional, exhilarating, and filled with tension. The Obelisk Gate fills in some of the mystery brought up in The Fifth Season, but it’s clear the second book is only a stepping stone to the final book. Still, it’s clear that the fate of the world will be decided by either the mother who has lost so much, but still as a daughter to save or the daughter who sees only cruelty and injustice wherever she turns. It’s hard picking a side. (Even now, having finished the entire series, I don’t know which side is the “best” one.) But Nassun, Essun and the other characters are ready to move beyond mere surviving the season. They’re ready to exist in a new world!