Review: The Obelisk Gate (The Broken Earth #2) – N.K. Jemisin

the obelisk gateThe 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.

Rating: 4/5

Ladies and gentlemen, I am delighted to report that there is no second-book syndrome here. The Obelisk Gate is just as rich and pacy as its predecessor – revealing more of the mysteries of the world building that were introduced in The Fifth Season.

Firstly, on an utterly shallow note, the covers for this series are incredible. This one in particular really caught my eye with its pleasing purple shades. Deceptively beautiful, considering the rather dire situations contained within.

As far as the plot is concerned, we pick up directly where the previous book left off – Essun and Alabaster have been reunited, with Alabaster on his way off this mortal coil. He has much knowledge to impart, although an understanding teacher he is not. However, it is only around halfway through the book that Essun finds out what, exactly, he intends for her to do.

You want me to catch the fucking moon?

Oh, I had to chuckle at Essun’s profanity-filled proclamation.

I was reminded, yet again, of the breathtaking scope of the originality and world building. It’s utterly refreshing to have a fantasy setting that isn’t a poor imitation of medieval Europe. Most of the people populating the novel are varying shades of brown. Women aren’t oppressed, at least not because of their gender. In fact, most of the characters are women who are adept and powerful in their own rights, whether they are leaders, physically strong, magically talented or mechanically skilled – to name but a few examples.

I also found this instalment much easier to follow, in terms of perspectives. We follow Essun as she adjusts to life in her newfound community, with increasing responsibilities to prevent civil war, save her own skin, and master her powers over the floating obelisks in the sky. The second perspective is that of Essun’s daughter, Nassun, detailing her flight from her home with her father and the events that follow. Finally, we have short interjections from a third, mysterious narrator, whose identity you can figure out as the book progresses.

But if you stay, no part of this comm gets to decide that any part of this comm is expendable. No voting on who gets to be people.

One thing that has stood our for me throughout this series is the dark, wry humour. The kind that comes from situations that seem so hopeless that if you don’t temper it with sarcasm you’ll end up crying instead.

You’re the one who has to explain to Tonkee that Hjarka’s decided, through whatever convoluted set of values the big woman holds dear, than an ex-commless geomest with the social skills of a rock represents the pinnacle of desirability.

Finally, I was really drawn to the depiction of platonic relationships that form the heart of the novel – mainly between Essun and Alabaster, but between Essun and the other supporting characters as well. The somewhat begrudging relationships that turn into real care and concern, sometimes despite Essun’s intentions – understandable, considering the staggering losses she has faced in her past. The role she takes on to protect the people of her community, despite how they may treat her, and her attempts to preserve life, despite her abilities to wipe out everyone surrounding her.

Creative, powerful, entertaining and at times philosophical, The Obelisk Gate is a fantastic continuation of this effortlessly blended-genre series.

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The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth #1) – N.K. Jemisin

the fifth seasonThis is the way the world ends. Again.

Three terrible things happen in a single day. Essun, a woman living an ordinary life in a small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Meanwhile, mighty Sanze — the world-spanning empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years — collapses as most of its citizens are murdered to serve a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heart of the vast continent known as the Stillness, a great red rift has been been torn into the heart of the earth, spewing ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.

Now Essun must pursue the wreckage of her family through a deadly, dying land. Without sunlight, clean water, or arable land, and with limited stockpiles of supplies, there will be war all across the Stillness: a battle royale of nations not for power or territory, but simply for the basic resources necessary to get through the long dark night. Essun does not care if the world falls apart around her. She’ll break it herself, if she must, to save her daughter.

Rating: 4.5/5

An incredible, effortlessly original fantasy novel, well-deserving of its Hugo Award. This is the second book of the author’s that I’ve read – The Killing Moon was the first – and again, I was struck by how fresh Jemisin’s work feels. She doesn’t waste time rehashing the tired old fantasy tropes that we see over and over again. She also has absolutely no fucks to give, and it comes through in her work that has so many highly relevant messages to the world we live in today.

Tell them they can be great someday, like us. Tell them they belong among us, no matter how we treat them. Tell them they must earn the respect which everyone else receives by default. Them them there is a standard for acceptance; that standard is simply perfection. Kill those who scoff at those contradictions, and tell the rest that the dead deserved annihilation for their weakness and doubt. Then they’ll break themselves trying for what they’ll never achieve.

First, let’s talk world building. It pairs astronomy with sentient rock people, as the author herself notes in the acknowledgements, which is such a fabulous, intriguing notion. Basically, there are a small group of people born who are able to control the earth’s geological forces, causing or dispelling earthquakes and other seismic activity. Rest of the world is terrified of these people, and the sentient rock people (its a catchy term, okay) are heavily discriminated against. And that’s all you really need to know going in.

There are so many intricacies and subplots going on in the background – you simply have to trust the author to reveal the information to you as relevant. Indeed, you’re thrown into the deep end when the book begins, with three different perspectives of three women in very different situations. But you’re able to piece things together without being spoonfed by the author. She makes you work for it, which is so  much more satisfying.

“I didn’t know.” She slurs the words around the back of her hand. The words don’t make sense but she feels compelled to say them. “I didn’t.”

“You think that matters?” It’s almost cruel, the emotionlessness of his voice and face.

The characters are … interesting. There’s no other way to put it. They are substantial, but the author has perfected showing, not telling, so there’s much we have to infer from their actions and words. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the diversity of characters. Female perspectives dominate, and they are kickass, intelligent, self-sufficient women. Almost everybody in this novel is of some shade of brown. Sexualities are fluid. Trans people exist without fanfare or furore. There are complicated relationships and not-relationships, which I will leave you to discover for yourself.

The moments of humour are few and far between, considering the subject matter of the book, but this makes them all the more valuable. The following exchange in particular had me cackling out loud:

“Don’t follow me.”

“Wasn’t planning to.”

“I mean it… You don’t know what I’m going back to. I could live in a walled compound with fifty other rusters just like me. We might have tooth-files and a ‘juicy stupid people’ recipe book.”

You get the impression that you are just skimming the surface of what is a deeply intricate, deeply layered universe. Kudos to the author, and highly recommended.

Review: The Killing Moon (Dreamblood #1) – N.K. Jemisin

Hello, hello…this is your captain speaking. Remember me? Ha! I ended up having to take an unofficial hiatus for a week due to general life business, thesis-ing, and a book slump where I just lost the desire to read… luckily, only a temporary condition! Anyway, I am back, and I hope you have all been having a wonderfully literary time in my absence.

the killing moonThe city burned beneath the Dreaming Moon.

In the ancient city-state of Gujaareh, peace is the only law. Upon its rooftops and amongst the shadows of its cobbled streets wait the Gatherers – the keepers of this peace. Priests of the dream-goddess, their duty is to harvest the magic of the sleeping mind and use it to heal, soothe . . . and kill those judged corrupt.

But when a conspiracy blooms within Gujaareh’s great temple, Ehiru – the most famous of the city’s Gatherers – must question everything he knows. Someone, or something, is murdering dreamers in the goddess’ name, stalking its prey both in Gujaareh’s alleys and the realm of dreams. Ehiru must now protect the woman he was sent to kill – or watch the city be devoured by war and forbidden magic. 

Rating: 4/5

This was the kind of fantasy book that’s meant to be savoured – its pace is slow, but the kind that I could appreciate, not the painful variety. The author has created a new fantasy world, rich in character, complex and well-fleshed out.

It was a little difficult to situate myself initially, especially with the new words, and certain rituals that I didn’t quite understand, but as with most fantasy books, clarity comes as you persevere. I especially enjoyed how the author showed the contrasts between the two different cultures featured – and not just the surface level cultural distinctions, e.g. food, dress and religion, for example, but also the deeper elements of their way of life.

One thing I admired about this book is that it wasn’t formulaic. There was no miraculous saving of one of the doomed characters. There were no dramatic declarations of love. The day wasn’t magically saved, in the end. (Although it was much less bad than it could have been, so please don’t despair!) It was a refreshing change, even though my wish-fulfillment side was a little sad.

There is very little romance in this book, so be warned if that’s what you’re looking for. There are hints of it, certainly, but our characters are focused on the end-game.

All in all, a dense but interesting novel focused on the corrupting nature of power, euthanasia and religion, with a main trio of well-constructed characters whose actions are understandable even when they’re not particularly palatable.