Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Obelisk Gate

 N. K. Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate, a 2017 Hugo nominee, continues where The Fifth Season left off --- instants later. This means that it continues the momentum of the first novel, and since I am inhaling these books between fever-naps, I can continue to read, with no break between installments. This momentum is no slow-building thing; like the continental plates in the book itself, it starts with a lot of powerful momentum already. The Fifth Season is dedicated "For all those who have to fight for the respect that everyone else is given without question", a theme which is reinforced by later explicit guidelines for slavery, which state "Tell them they must earn the respect which everyone else receives by default." (The Fifth Season, p. 61) These are generic enough to hook my attention: whether commenting on the explicit formation of an underclass, or the implicit ways in which gender often sidelines women, these quotes shape how I approached the book and the themes that stood out while reading.

If that was not enough, the series begins with a murder and progresses by showing that the main characters are not invincible or immortal. Jemisin does not shy away from killing characters who, in a typical fantasy context, I would have earmarked as protected-by-narrative-importance. Quite early, we have this narration:
When we say "the world has ended," it's usually a lie, because the planet is just fine.
But this is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world ends.For the last time." (p. 15)

If the force of subjugated peoples were not enough, the blazing reference to T. S. Eliot is certainly a strong hook, a demand for attention and an indication of the scope and importance of the narrator's tale.

All these layers continue in The Obelisk Gate, where we finally see the culmination of the intertwined threads of The Fifth Season, and some new narrative threads begin to spread out. One would think that in a three-book series which begins with "this is the way the planet ends", there might not be very much more to say or do, but Jemisin's main characters reach to grasp their fate in full knowledge of the limits of their power and the lifetimes available to them. The novel progresses in the usual fantasy way --- people study hard, focus their attention, and are able to harness increasingly absurd amounts of mystical power --- but the a-few-months-ago apocalypse, and the characters' individual motivations, make this book enjoyable. There is, of course, some fantastic writing to carry the entire thing, a nice dollop of words atop a teetering pile of ideas.

I liked it.

This post's theme word is cabochon, "a gem polished but not faceted." The ability to control magic is a cabochon in children; a sparkling, cut jewel in trained adults.

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