Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The Obelisk Gate by NK Jemisin

I read the first volume in Jemison’s Broken Earth Trilogy, The Fifth Season, last year. I thought it was very near perfect and fully deserved it’s Hugo award, an honor both its sequels had already garnered by the time I started the series. I read so much epic fantasy around 1999-2001 that I burned out on the genre and read very little of it for a few years (abetted by an ill-conceived period in which I only read pretentious literary fiction; a genre I still love, but I got really snooty for a while there). This isn’t exactly epic fantasy, though it certainly has aspects of that; it’s set far in the future after a geological catastrophe. There are constant earthquakes and volcanoes. All life exists near the equator.

The structure of the first book, three strands that show different aspects of the world (I won’t spoil how they come together) allowed Jemisin to create a believable post-tectonic catastrophe world, which feels like science fiction. The characters on that world read like fantasy; there are origenes, people who have evolved the ability to control to an extent the seismic activity around them; Guardians who have been engineered to be able to block the power of Origenes because they scare everyone else; Stone People, who present as living statues. Every so often the world goes through a Fifth Season in which seismic activity makes the world nearly unliveable for some number of years. The season that hits in this series promises (at least through two volumes) to last 10,000 years; the worst yet. Because of their ability to modify seismic activity, Origenes are vital in trying to prevent fifth seasons. Also because of their power, specifically what they can do when they get out of control, they are feared and hated. There is a fairly strict caste system in this world; Origenes exist somewhat out of that and, when discovered, are shunted into a special academy where they can be controlled and monitored. It’s really a fascinating world. It really allows Jemisin to explore class and racial themes in a very powerful way, without being preachy. Yet the message gets across.

The first book opens with a powerful Origene deliberately causing the onset of a Fifth Season. In the first book Essun, a powerful Origene in hiding goes out into the now crumbling world in search of her daughter, Nassun. In The Obelisk Gate, she has found shelter in a com (community) that is more friendly to Origenes. The other strand of the story deals with her daughter coming into her own power as an Origene. There is a network of giant obelisks orbiting the Earth that are a key to their power and the future of the world.

I won’t say much more, because I do really recommend reading these. The prose is excellent; it seems to have cured me of my longstanding bias against second person narration. The story is engaging the whole way through. The themes of race, gender and control are searing and moving. The books are smart and compelling. If you like alternate world/ far future scifi/fantasy at all, I highly recommend these. Looking forward to the third volume once I get through some other books. I'm not sure what they were up against, but I'm glad both won the Hugo.

The Fifth Season (read last year): Canon-Worthy
The Obelisk Gate- Highly Recommended

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