Ethan's Reviews > The Obelisk Gate

The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin
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Dec 08, 2016

it was amazing
bookshelves: hugo-finalists-2017

This sequel is as complex and interesting as the first one, although somewhat less evenly paced.

(See the somewhat expanded blog version of this review here: http://examinedworlds.blogspot.com/20...).

First the relatively minor issues. There's a bit of second-book-in-a-trilogy syndrome here. That new universe smell has worn off to some extent. The pace is a bit slow for much of the first half of the book. As with the first book, occasionally all that complexity and subtlety made it difficult to follow.

Despite these issues, I'm still rating this one five stars on account of the world building, characters, and all-too-timely expansion of the social themes of the first book.

This world continues to be really cool. I love the Stillness, the sarcastically-named, highly tectonically active continent that provides the setting. The apocalypse that began in the first book has gotten worse. This "Fifth Season" threatens to be much, much worse than others, maybe an extinction level event. Essun and friends end up living in an underground geode for shelter from the beautifully-written terror of ash falling from the sky and general environmental mayhem. Things for humans have gotten a lot worse, creating the fantasy version of post-apocaylptic dystopia. Communities go into stark survival mode as old institutions die out. The plants and animals even get nastier as they adapt to their new environment (there are some particularly nasty bugs that play an important part in the story). The orogeny system from the first book is further explained and expanded in an interesting, if confusing, way (as more of a science fiction fan I'm always confused when fantasy authors get too deep into their magic system, so take my confusion with a grain of salt). There are other really cool big developments with the world, but I don't want to spoil them.

The two main characters of this book are Essun (one of the main characters from book one) and her daughter Nassun (who is on the run elsewhere). They're both complex characters whose bad assery is mixed with plenty of emotional nuance. There's also Alabaster, a surprise character who gets a lot of time, a few of the minor characters from book one (my favorite is Tonkee), and some new characters.

As I noted in my review of the first book (http://examinedworlds.blogspot.com/20...), one of the major themes of that book was the complexity of living in an unjust society that might simultaneously benefit and oppress the individuals in it. This theme gets an interesting complication here as the institutions from the first book have dissolved, leaving the characters to find their ways in new social dynamics that nonetheless carry the scars of past injustices.

The biggest example is the continuing prejudice against the orogenes (or "roggas" in the derogatory parlance). Although the apocalypse has erased the old social structures that both privileged and controlled the orogenes, the bigotry against them still remains, often dangerously so. At one point the rights of the orogenes to exist within a community are put to a vote and ... well, I'm trying to keep this spoiler free, but it raises poignant political issues about the tyranny of the majority: democracy may be a good thing, but what if it's used to persecute hated minorities?

I'm just going to come out and say that reading this just weeks after the election of Donald Trump here in the US and amid the general resurgence of blatant bigotry around the world in recent years has made these themes all the more palatable. Quite frankly, the more I think about this book the more I find it terrifyingly relevant. Disturbingly so. This is not escapist fantasy. Far from it.

Both our world and the world of The Broken Earth face similar exigent issues. How can we live together when some segments of the population hate and fear others, when old bigotries are unleashed in new forms like the so-called "alt-right" or, an example all too familiar to Jemisin herself, Rabid Puppies? Can we learn to embrace the diversity of humanity that has been with us all along, or will the tribalisms and injustices of the past reassert their dominance? How will we survive the stark possibilities of our own impending climate apocalypse?

I don't know how to answer these questions. Reading this book won't answer them, either. But if there are answers to these questions - and that's a big if - facing them squarely and thinking clearly and creatively will be essential. And there Jemisin may have something for us.
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Reading Progress

July 21, 2016 – Shelved
July 21, 2016 – Shelved as: to-read
November 24, 2016 – Started Reading
December 8, 2016 – Finished Reading
June 28, 2017 – Shelved as: hugo-finalists-2017

Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Bart (new)

Bart As for the political content: isn't it mainly preaching to the choir? A fantasy author facing the issues squarely/clearly/creatively won't convince a racist/alt-right winger/etc. On the contrary, more and more analysis points to the fact that the stress on identity politics of the last decades has driven the working class away from the left into the hands of Trump & rightwing populists, only adding & worsening the structural (economical) divide.

I only read the first book, but based on that I also have to the ask the question if "glaringly obvious" truly is "creative"?


Ethan Bart wrote: "As for the political content: isn't it mainly preaching to the choir? A fantasy author facing the issues squarely/clearly/creatively won't convince a racist/alt-right winger/etc. On the contrary, m..."

I don't think Jemisin is going to change a Rabid Puppy's mind, but that's not her point. She might change the mind of someone more on the fence or whose opinions are unformed, but my point was that those of us in the choir need some ideas for how to think through the issues I mentioned. Or maybe not. I don't know. I do think she has some pretty novel ways of dramatizing ways in which individuals live in social structures, especially in this one where the old order is fading away, but this is far from a utopia so there aren't any obvious answers.

I'm not entirely sure what the "identity-politics-is-the-problem" narrative has to do with all this. I haven't been able to crystalize my own thoughts on the matter, but here are a few issues: 1. I'm not clear what people think "identity politics" is supposed to be. 2. It's hard for me to read that analysis without finding it oddly defeatist, a leftist internalization of the right's reactions against recent gains, or a scapegoating of some of the more vulnerable members of society. 3. In the case of Trump's election, I don't think it's necessarily true that it was mainly about economic issues or the working class, since a lot of data show that he had support among a wide range of socio-economic classes. I'm not claiming it was just about race or gender, either. The election is far too complex to be boiled down to a single issue.

All of this said, perhaps it's true that leftists/progressives/fans of diversity need to find better, more inclusive ways to talk to some people about these issues. And maybe that's all people like Mark Lilla (who wrote the prominent NY Times piece on this topic) are saying, in which case I might partly agree. But if the idea goes deeper than that, I don't think it would be wise to stop thinking about ways in which social factors influence our identities or to give up struggles for rights for women, LGBT people, people of color, etc. just because we had a few bad elections.

Sorry, this got pretty far from Jemisin's book, but I thank you for giving me a chance to get some ideas out of my head. Presumably we disagree about the book (and maybe some of the issues), but I have always enjoyed our discussions.


message 3: by Bart (new)

Bart Excuses aren't necessary, it's obviously a political book, so a political discussion firmly has its place here! :)

Agreed, Trump's election is indeed complex & in a way too small a case to prove this or that. Him aside, I have read convincing pieces in Belgian press (long before Trump even candidating) from social scientists that frame the decline of the leftist parties in Europe (generally across the board, a few exceptions here and there) in favor of parties who are both populist (crime, immigration) and economically right (austerity, tax cuts) as the old left has moved too much to the center economically, and instead started focussing on identity politics (let's broadly define that as "the defense of minorities based on race & gender rather than class") and on North-South fair trade relationships (defending the workers overseas, rather than the own workers). Yet, since the end of the 70ies, as cooperate multinational power grew, the gap between rich and poor increased and real wages have stagnated. Most left parties simply seem to have accepted Late Capitalism as the default. This has alienated the bulk of the blue collar workers, who have increasingly been struggling. In a way it's a variant of Brecht's "Erst das Fressen, dann die Moral".

I agree people in the choir need input & ideas to continue the fight, I just didn't find that in The Fifth Season. I'm not saying protecting and advancing minorities isn't important, it obviously is, but it's rather a question of tactics.

I'm not sure if people on the fence or uninformed people will be convinced by narratives like these. I don't think these books have that much power. Good journalism might, or good teachers, or social programs that bring people from different backgrounds together, or mass political activism. I don't think an opinion like mine is a form of defeatism - on the contrary, I think it would be better that some authors are critical towards the practical effect of their books on social change (imo approaching zero in Jemisin's case), and then decide wether their time should better be spend otherwise, in other, more effective ways of activism.


Ethan Bart wrote: "Excuses aren't necessary, it's obviously a political book, so a political discussion firmly has its place here! :)

Agreed, Trump's election is indeed complex & in a way too small a case to prove t..."


I have read similar larger analyses in the American and British press, which is definitely worth consideration. It's good to hear about some Belgian perspectives.

This is, as you say, perhaps more a matter of political strategy or tactics. I think those are good discussions to have, but I would hate to see issues of people's basic rights subsumed under a larger economic agenda that's allegedly for everyone, but could be used to forget those issues. I don't see why we can't have both.

I doubt that Jemisin sees her work as a replacement for good journalism or political activism. Or at least I don't. It might supplement those things, but I think you're right to caution against placing too much power into what is, after all, a form of entertainment. I also don't insist that all the books I read have some obvious political content. I like an apolitical space opera once in awhile.

I do think that books like Jemisin's might have a more abstract effect on ways of thinking, somewhat like philosophy does. It may not be immediately obvious or concretely politically expedient, but I find SFF literature to be a good way to think about deeper issues of diversity. It's also refreshing to read a fantasy book that's not about a young white boy saving the world in a vaguely medieval European setting.


message 5: by Bart (new)

Bart Yes, agreed on all points, except for "why we can't have both". I guess this is the crux of the analyses: if you stress one thing too much, you'll end up loosing the number of votes you need to realize your project. As it is at the moment, the left isn't having anything whatsoever, partly because they tried to have both. You mention the possibility of the economic agenda being used to forget the identity issues: that's ironic, since exactly the opposite has happend: the identity issues have deflected from the economical ones.


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