Every apocalypse is personal. When you find yourself caught in a survival situation, ultimately it comes down to who you can trust, and how you can best ensure you’re still standing when the smoke and ashes clear. This has been a recurring theme in much post-apocalyptic fiction for as long as SF has been publishing the stuff, and while it shapes that template to its own purpose, The Obelisk Gate is in every sense a post-apocalyptic novel. Here, the line between science fiction and fantasy blurs until it’s practically irrelevant. N. K. Jemisin’s world of the Stillness may be a bleak secondary world, or it may be our own world in some unimaginably distant, geologically insane future.
The Obelisk Gate has a tighter and more intimate focus than The Fifth Season, though both books, each in its own way, are centered on relationships. While The Fifth Season spread its action over decades in the life of its protagonist, the orogene Essun, the sequel compresses its own action into a much briefer time frame and divides its story between Essun and her lost daughter, Nassun.
Essun’s search for her daughter, following the murder of her son by her husband, launched the story of The Fifth Season and propelled us through a landscape fraught with endless peril. Essun is an orogene who possesses the ability to control and manipulate the seismic activity that endangers her island continent, the Stillness, and its peoples. She and other orogenes are viewed with mistrust and outright bigotry by those whose survival depends on them. For all that they are trained and kept under harsh control by the Fulcrum and its Guardians — whose techniques cross the line into outright moral evil — it is an orogene, Essun’s teacher Alabaster, who triggers the cataclysm that begins the “fifth season” of the title.
The Obelisk Gate begins where the first novel left off. Essun and her traveling companion, the boy Hoa, find themselves at a community called Castrima housed inside an enormous geode underground. Hoa is a Stone Eater, a strange race of statue-like, quasi-human beings with an affinity for the deep earth, able to pass through solid rock strata like fish through water. With the dying Alabaster also housed at Castrima — he is turning into stone himself — Essun learns that she alone may possess the orogenetic strength to stave off, if not end altogether, the impact of Alabaster’s breaking of the world. Otherwise, neither Castrima nor any other comm struggling for survival has a hope, as this fifth season may last tens of thousands of years. Castrima’s own food supply, especially fresh meat, will run out within a year, and its social cohesion is already on a knife edge due to its mixture of untrained orogenes and regular people among the population.
Essun has some kind of connection with the mysterious, crystalline obelisks that float over the land, bizarre artifacts of a long-dead civilization, and if she can somehow figure all of this out and gain some measure of command, she might have a chance to save lives. But how can any people survive when no one can let go of age-old fears and prejudices that refuse to let them see anyone different as even human at all? The hell of it is that the fears of non-orogenes aren't entirely unfounded. Without training, “feral” orogenes can kill impulsively and unintentionally. And the agenda of the Fulcrum was not exactly altrustic in training the hated “roggas” to control and discipline their powers.
The book’s second story thread follows Nassun, who has been taken far to the south by her father. Nassun, whom we never saw in the first book, quickly becomes as interesting a character as Essun. Only 10 years old, she has to develop adult survival instincts very quickly. She knows her father is so fearful in his hatred of orogenes — he did, after all, beat her kid brother to death — that he is full-on mentally imbalanced. She learns very quickly how to manipulate and lead him, simply to ensure he won’t murder her as well. But she’s still a child herself, and unworldly, and thus unable to see how she herself is subject to manipulation when an old acquaintance of her mother’s pops up unexpectedly in the community where they settle.
Both Essun and Nassun find themselves on far different paths, but each facing the urgency of survival in fragile, post-apocalyptic societies that could completely collapse around them at the slightest crack in the foundation. Where The Fifth Season dealt in some grandiose set-pieces, this book favors interpersonal battles and a quieter intensity that is no less riveting dramatically. It’s the kind of strong sequel that takes care not simply to repeat all the storytelling beats of its predecessor, while remaining consistent and faithful to the earlier book’s tone and voice. At this rate, the Broken Earth trilogy as a whole is shaping up to be a seismic event in modern fantasy, a saga of hope and love and survival at all odds with the power to topple mountains.