Best Novel Nominees: The Obelisk Gate

Next up on my Best Novel rundown is N.K. Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate, sequel to last year’s Hugo-winning novel The Fifth Season, and middle book of the Broken Earth trilogy.  I didn’t read all the Hugo nominees last year, so this year I read The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate back-to-back, and I’m going to discuss both of them here, though I’ll try not to spoil too much of the plot.

Overall, I think Broken Earth is one of the most inventive works of epic fantasy in years.  Jemisin combines the post-apocalyptic setting, familiar from near-future SF, with a pre-industrial fantasy world prone to seismic instability.  Orogeny, a form of magic that can manipulate the earth, is used to keep earthquakes to a minimum across the continent known semi-ironically as “the Stillness”.  On the other hand, its practitioners, orogenes, are feared, reviled, and placed under the control of a caste of “Guardians” – if they’re not murdered first.

The Stillness is rather apocalypse-prone, having suffered tens of “Fifth Seasons” (or simply “Seasons”) – continent-spanning disasters – in recorded history.  Society has been organized around the idea that disaster may strike at any time, and the fact that certain people and skillsets become more valuable during a Season has resulted in a “use-caste” system combined with a restrictive notion of community membership.  When a Season occurs, communities are expected to implement a form of martial law, and anyone not belonging to a community is probably not going to survive.

The Fifth Season opens with an orogene tearing the planet open, causing a Season that is likely to be worse than any that came before.  From there, we follow three orogenes in what the reader gradually realizes are three different timelines (as the Season that begins in one of the timelines clearly isn’t occuring in the other two).  One orogene is a girl being taken away from her family by a Guardian; one is a member of the Fulcrum, an institute that trains and restrains orogenes; and one is a mother who has managed to keep her orogeny a secret in her small community, until the moment her secret – and that of her children – is discovered.

From there, in reading The Fifth Season we realize how these three people relate to each other, and we see a little of the mysterious floating obelisks that wander the planet.  At the end of the book, we learn of something that has the potential to end the Seasons forever.  Then, in The Obelisk Gate, we learn of a conflict surrounding that possibility, which has gone on for generations.  The conflict has multiple factions, some of which are not human, but the core point of contention is over the earth itself, and the incident that caused the Seasons to start happening.  We learn more about the depth and breadth of orogeny, about the Guardians, and many of the mysteries introduced in the first book are deepened and fleshed out.  The book concludes in a tense readiness for an attempt to fix the Seasons forever.

The Obelisk Gate is a perfect middle-of-a-trilogy book.  It picks up all of the plot hooks left over from the first book, and resolves a couple of them while tying the rest of them together into a more complex network of relationships that is poised to collide and entangle further during the last book.  Orogeny is a mysterious force throughout the first book, but in the second book we understand more of how it works and what its potential is, setting us up to appreciate some truly epic uses of the magic in the conclusion.

If The Fifth Season had not already won an extremely well-deserved Hugo last year, or if the four other books had not all been as excellent as they are, The Obelisk Gate would be at or near the top of my ballot this year.  But in this field, there are other books and series more deserving of a first Hugo than Broken Earth is of a second one.


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