I’ve been enjoying the recent trend in fantasy literature that explores what happens after—after the big bad is defeated, after a major disaster. In addition to making all those political philosophy classes I took in college relevant at last, books like N.K. Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate offer a glimpse into a moment when survival meets idealism. When you’re scrabbling to find enough for your family to eat, is there time to fight a larger battle for equality?
The Fifth Season introduced us to a planet that regularly sees geologic disasters the cause (or have the potential to cause) mass die offs and extinctions. Orogenes have the power to manipulate stone, heat, pressure, and other forces and have been required to keep the continent safe from volcanoes and earthquakes on pain of death. At the end of that book, an orogene caused a potentially planet-killing earthquake. In The Obelisk Gate, the survivors have holed up in various comms (communities) and working as hard as they can to store up supplies for the long “fifth season” that’s coming. As if it wasn’t enough for the protagonists to cope with, they soon learn that there is a lot more going on that might kill them sooner than starvation or raiders. Oh, and their safe(ish) communities might tear themselves apart because of anti-orogene prejudice.
Because the planet’s human civilizations have been interrupted so frequently, Essun and her daughter, as well as the other characters, have lost a lot of history about past empires, peoples, languages, and even a rough narrative of what’s happened on their patch of earth. That history, unfortunately for them, has chosen this moment to emerge and make a play to force human extinction at last. Essun and her former lover and mentor, Alabaster, only have vague stories and artifacts of past civilizations to try and piece together the whole story of a) why their planet is so screwed up and b) who wants to kill off humanity and why. This is another reason why I like books that look at what happen after. Novels that end with a big showdown that eliminates whatever was wrong with the world make things look easy. If the protagonists take down the big bad, they’ll have a happily ever after. This new wave of fantasy brutally shows us that the reality is probably a lot more complicated than that.
The Obelisk Gate is beautifully constructed. It picks up soon after the end of The Fifth Season. There is little to no summary of what happened previously, allowing us to dive right back into things. Jemisin is a marvel at balancing continuing characterization and exciting subplots with furthering the larger story of the war between humans and the ancient stone creatures that are mostly out to get them. I want to hold this book up to would-be fantasy writers and shout: “This is how you do it!” The characters are so real that I can sympathize with almost everyone, even “enemies.” (Essun breaks my heart.) The world Jemisin created is just getting richer and richer, and the story is so engaging that I read this book in less than 12 hours.