The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin


“The season of endings grows darker as civilization fades into the long cold night. Alabaster Tenring – madman, world-crusher, savior – has returned with a mission: to train his successor, Essun, and thus seal the fate of the Stillness forever.

It continues with a lost daughter, found by the enemy.

It continues with the obelisks, and an ancient mystery converging on answers at last.

The Stillness is the wall which stands against the flow of tradition, the spark of hope long buried under the thickening ashfall. And it will not be broken.” – blurb from the author’s website.


I echo all of the sentiments from my recommendation for the first book in the series. Book 2 I’d say is a bit more character focused–our protagonist isn’t on the move anymore and a lot of the book is spent figuring out what to do next. There’s still that sense of slowly unfolding mystery from the first book, though, in a good way. I’m looking forward to book 3.

Cover of The Obelisk Gate
Cover of The Obelisk Gate


Jemisin does some really impressive character work in this book. There isn’t a single character that’s clearly 100% good guy or bad guy. She even redeems Schaffa to a degree, and he was a piece of garbage in book 1. I had a lot of feelings about the revelations through Nassun’s chapters of how much Essun emulated Schaffa when training Nassun, even going so far as to physically re-enact her own trauma on her daughter by breaking her hand the same way Schaffa broke hers. With how conscious Essun seems to be of how much she hates Schaffa, it was upsetting, but also given how much of Essun’s life was spent being told she was less than human for being an orogene and knowing that orogenes get hate-crimed constantly in the Stillness…I can understand her feeling like she has no choice, knows no better way to make sure her daughter can control herself enough to be safe.

Overall I think Jemisin just did a really fantastic job with the deeply asymmetrical relationships between Essun, Nassun, and Jija. I kind of wanted a scene between Essun and Jija because I just can’t really picture her being comfortable enough with a still to have two children with one. Jija comes pretty close to being an unambiguous bad guy, and is probably the least-redeemable human character, but the author did put in work to emphasize that his hatred was a mixture of societal conditioning and over indexing on one incident in his past. Also I guess Steel/Gray Man comes off pretty straightforwardly ‘bad guy’ but that’s in large part due to how little we know about him. He kind of has Final Fantasy villain vibes with his “crash the moon into the planet so no one has to suffer anymore because everyone sucks” schtick.

I hope book 3 gives more information about the desires, motivations, and histories of all of the main character stone eaters–Hoa, Steel/Gray Man, and Antimony (and that other stone eater that showed up at the end of the book that may or may not be Alabaster reborn???). Right now it feels like they all know exactly what’s going on, way more than the humans at least, and just aren’t allowed to tell anyone. Essun’s developing relationship with Hoa is interesting and I want to see where it goes. I simultaneously do and don’t believe that his motivation is just that he loves her. Antimony seemed to love Alabaster, but she also wanted to eat him. Hoa kind of wants to eat Essun, but seems genuine about the whole “only if she wants me to” thing. Since there now seems to be a clearly established cause and effect relationship between using magic and turning into edible stone, and magic seems to be the only way to affect the moon, it seems inevitable that either Essun or Nassun is going to be stone by the end of the trilogy. I haven’t looked at any plot summaries or peeked ahead in the book so this is 100% legit prediction–I think Essun is going to sacrifice herself to stop the Seasons, Nassun is going to have some sort of moral/emotional reconciling and forgive her mother while somehow completing the day-saving that Essun’s going to sacrifice herself for…and I have no idea what any of the stone eaters are going to do. I love the degree to which they’re wildcards.

Other miscellaneous comments – I thought Alabaster’s slow decline corresponding with Essun’s slow accumulation of power, and both of those paralleling Nassun’s own self-discovery halfway across the continent, were very effective in carrying forward that creeping-mystery feeling from the first book. Alabaster’s death had a big emotional impact for me despite basically knowing it was coming eventually. All of the tech and architecture of Castrima is so cool; I don’t usually picture things that much when I’m reading (in fact I think I’m incapable of inventing character faces–my mental images of characters are usually just clothes and body, sometimes hair, but with a void where the face should be), but Castrima was pretty vivid for me. The cover art wasn’t ugly this time (the colors are actually quite nice) but it doesn’t feel relevant to the book so I still don’t like it.

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