The Obelisk Gate picks up pretty much where The Fifth Season ends, chronologically, although it shifts in writing style, with a narrator, telling Essun what’s going on, particularly with her daughter. It threw me just a little, to be honest, because I wondered if I’d got the wrong book, or missed something in the earlier book but once I settled into it, I found it worked quite well.
Traditionally the second book of a fantasy trilogy is the travel book, but with The Fifth Season in full swing, travel is rather difficult and we don’t get that here, rather we get more of an inner journey as both Essun and Nassun learn more about their powers, albeit in very different ways and we also learn some more about the Guardians.
For me, this book didn’t have the massive impact of The Fifth Season in some ways. The world is known, the main characters are known. However, we start to see the actual impact of living in a fifth season from little things like boil bugs - no one knew why they were called that, but during a fifth season they change, burrow under your skin and then create a boil (in the medical sense) of boiling hot water around them and cook a part of you alive to feed their eggs. One is just very painful, a dozen is possibly fatal. They fill pools by the thousands… But we also see the casual attitude to cannibalism which is common and the “Roggas aren’t human” and a strong thread of discrimination running through the book which is interesting in it’s own right. It might not have the massive impact of the first book but just because it’s quieter doesn’t mean that it’s not there and not powerful.
Alongside that we see Nassun maturing. She comes to realise the ways in which her mother, whom she hated and probably still hates, certainly won’t forgive, was acting from a mixture of fear, love and her own upbringing - and was certainly trying to do her best to bring Nassun up safely. Alongside that, she comes to see how her father, who she adores, doesn’t love her as she is, rather he loves her as he imagines her to be - in this case cured of being an orogene but the various scenes as that emerges have resonance for anyone who is in another unloved minority: gay, trans or similar being the most obvious one but I’m sure some forms of disability and so on will have people who identify strongly with it.
While all of this is going on in subtler ways than in The Fifth Season the big plot of The Obelisk Gate and the series overall is moving along. The details constitute major spoilers obviously but they move along nicely. Even here, as the characters are learning new skills, there is a subtle little dig at institutionalised learning versus folk knowledge as Essun finds it far easier to learn a skill from someone not trained in the Fulcrum’s rigid lessons and Nassun finds it easier to pick up the new way of thinking about magic than Essun did, as Essun had to unlearn the Fulcrum’s approach first.
This is not a traditional second book in a series by any stretch of the imagination and this approach would not work for many books. But it works nicely here. If you want your buckles swashed this isn’t the book for you, but you probably didn’t make it through The Fifth Season despite the pirates. But if you want a plausible look at being powerful but despised in an extreme survival situation, there’s a really powerful book here that’s well worth your time and effort.
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