04 February, 2017

The Obelisk Gate by NK Jemisin

0. This is the first book I've read that was nominated for the Hugo Awards for 2016 publishing dates. I read this before it was nominated.

1. Jemisin's writing has improved. She still lets young-old Hoa tell you the second part of this tale. Where the last novel was split into three main families of chapters, woven together intricately, this one is split into two chapter groups, mostly alternating: Hoa addressing Essun in the second person, telling her what she did; and somebody telling the reader about Nassun in the third person—which I assume is Hoa speaking to Essun about Nassun, but don’t know for certain.
—Like in the last novel, there are brief interludes where Hoa adopts the first person to explain what he did and where, while Essun is either incapacitated or elsewhere.
—The second person Essun chapters exhibit a different voice than the third person sections show—I mean in word choices and sentence structures rather than in the point of view. For instance, this chosen-at-random, third person passage from a Nassun chapter:
She ignores him. The chain is welded to a loop at the end of the shaft. She fingers it and thinks hard, now that the strange man’s appearance has broken her deadlock. (Her hand’s shaking, though. She takes a deep breath, trying to get hold of her own fear. Somewhere off in the trees, there is a gurgling groan, and a scream of fury.) She knows Jija has some of his stoneknapping tools in his pack, but the harpoon is steel.
As you can see, we’ve got a variety of verbs and sentence structures. This is writing I like, and this is just a random section the book fell open to. There are a couple of to be verbs, but a couple help the reader feel familiar, or comfortable. However, the second person sections have a much higher percentage of to be verbs. Here is another chosen-at-random section, this time from an Essun chapter:
You’re keeping well back because the room smells of mildew and body odor and because you think you see something moving in the water along with her shed hair. Tonkee may have needed to wear filth as a part of her commless disguise, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t actual filth. ‘A moon,’ you say. It’s a strange word, brief and round; you’re not sure how much to stretch out the oo sound in the middle.
A third of the verbs are to be here, and some of the others are the common do/does or has/have. Let's take another at-random passage from an Essun chapter:
You’re in line to pick up your household’s share for the week when you hear the first whisper. It’s not directed at you, and it’s not meant to be overheard, but you hear it anyway because the speaker is agitated and forgets to be quiet.
Fifty-fifty between to be verbs and not to be verbs in this passage. Comparing random third and second person passages, I see Jemisin writing in two quite different voices—one relying on the to be verb, the other involving the rest of the dictionary more often. This creates a strange reaction for me: having read the last novel, I know Essun already, I already care about her and her story; yet I enjoy reading Nassun’s story more here, despite not really caring about Nassun herself until the very last eight words of the novel. Nassun's chapters provide more variety.
—But Jemisin breaks up the to be monopoly of Essun's chapters by using the familiar verbs to ground some experimental writing showing: Essun's mental break, Essun in the process of undoing everything she knows, Essun trying desperately to collate as much as possible faster than possible, Essun coming to grips with mistakes she hadn’t known she had made. For instance:
The smoky quartz. The amethyst, your old friend, plodding after you from Tirimo. The kunzite. The jade.
The agate. The jasper, the opal, the citrine . . .
You open your mouth to scream and do not hear yourself.
“It’s too much!” You don’t know if you’re screaming the words in your mind or out loud. “Too much!”
Jemisin uses italics, capitals, paragraph breaks, and bold letters (I think I remember those being in here somewhere) with these fractured, jumping sentences in order to convey the sheer change in Essun—much like CJ Cherryh uses the same tactic for the same reasons and goals in Tripoint. Here it’s a bit odd because it’s Hoa telling this story, while Essun is the one fractured mentally. Why does the way Hoa tells it fracture as well? He is still mentally intact. But it doesn’t bother me any. It communicates well.
—My biggest gripe with the last novel was word choices—a mix of colloquial and formal that just didn’t work for me. Here, it almost always works because she seems to tone down both the colloquial and the formal. There are no discordant mixes, outside of two lines I can remember—the first line of the novel, “Hm. No. I’m telling this wrong.” And the title of the penultimate chapter, “you get ready to rumble”, which makes me think that maybe Jemisin did intend the hockey pun in the last book’s title. Though there seem to be more uses of these internal, self-referencing terms unique to this novel—comm, still, orogeny, stonelore, et cetera. I’m fine with technobabble, or in this case magicobabble, but Jemisin uses it so often that when I took an unavoidable break from this book for a couple of weeks, there were a couple of terms and names I didn’t remember when I had gotten back to it.

2. And that’s the biggest thing to say here: this novel does not stand on its own. It’s a sequel, but I think sequels are opportunities, not excuses. What I mean is this: I read The Fifth Season last year, in May. Now, eight and a half months later, some of this language is just lost on me. Sure, she has an appendix in the back, but that’s a rare enough thing that I didn’t even suspect that there would be one back there, then felt stupid for being minutely frustrated through most of the novel. This isn’t a sequel in that nothing happens and it just sets up for the next book—though there is some of that here, I don’t think that’s a fair assessment: every chapter has something happening that progresses the story or builds the characters. Nassun is a new character, Essun is changing, Antimony and Hoa and Ykka are important and changing. Just because Essun is transforming and learning doesn’t mean it’s a dull read. I prefer this type of book to a montage. I was engaged throughout. But it is a book that you have to have read the first one to understand, and that's a weakness.

3. I was initially disappointed at magic. I did not end up disappointed, but when it was first revealed I thought, “Oh boy, here comes the midichlorians moment. Tell me about the mystic secret inner workings of the mystic secret inner workings. Ugh.” Where the last book has this unique orogeny stuff, now there’s something under the orogeny? And it’s magic? Again? Ugh. Why?
—Pixar makes great films because you are only asked to suspend your disbelief once, in the first ten minutes, and then everything else follows. (Except Up, which has talking dogs randomly appear much later, but that’s why Up’s their worst film.) As an author, Jemisin already had me, I was already tracking and interested. Why throw me another bone? I didn’t want it. I wanted to learn more about the bones I already had. For instance, learning more about the stone eaters was great. Learning about Schaffa and the guardians more fascinated me. Learning more about the history of Jemisin’s world reminded me why I love these books so much. Learning that there’s also magic was a letdown.
—But the reason I am not annoyed by magic at the end is because she uses magic to show how it hides the truth or distracts from it; to allow Ykka and Nassun to be almost equal to Essun in their own ways; to show how orogeny is really just a way to keep people down, racially; to make Essun change. So yeah, it’s annoying and probably didn’t need to be there, but at least it does something useful while it's there, and helps progress some of Jemisin’s arguments. So, sure, it’s fine.
The way of the world isn’t the strong devouring the weak, but the weak deceiving and poisoning and whispering in the ears of the strong until they become weak, too.
4. So, reading back through the preceding three notes, I don’t really dig into why I love this sequel, despite it not having legs of its own. First and foremost, Jemisin creates some really good characters. And by allowing them all to interact so often and in such a variety of situations, I understand them well.
—Essun is explicitly explained by Hoa and Alabaster: desperate for love and affection, yet wary of it because of all the deaths she has caused with those she loves in the past. She’s scared and pissed at the same time. She’s hurting and longing to hurt. She’s a punk rocker in the sense of burning everything down, but can easily convince herself to help build, as long as it's different. She’s explained through actions, dialogue, and Hoa’s version of her interior monologue.
—Alabaster tries to keep Essun on task, and doesn’t quite know how to do that. So he tries love, anger, and everything in between. This is all shown in his actions. He’s dying, but he’s okay with that, and that solid acceptance of reality allows him to be a nice foil for Essun’s struggles. He’s shown almost exclusively through his actions, though he is stuck in one place for the whole book, legless.
—Hoa, Steel, and Antimony are all a revelation, a peek into the stone eaters’ culture that is fascinating and expands what was there before. They’re mysterious still, but they’re mysterious in a certain direction, and I want to know where it’s heading. Steel is the slick used car salesman who wants to lead things to his idea of a better place. Hoa is the one who needs love, and he is fiercely loyal when it is shown to him. Antimony is attracted to power, and she’ll help tirelessly if she knows there’s a reward at the end of it.
—Ykka understands people and how to use them or convince them to work towards her purpose. But she also resents some of her duties and is anxious about both her personal future, and the future of the community—and anxious about her own priorities between these two anxieties. These come out through both her actions and her words, but mostly her words.

5. Second, the world building, which I praised at length in my notes for the last book, is also strong here. It doesn’t lay such a broad foundation, but when it works best is when it expands what was already there to begin with, when it deepens the reader’s understanding of mysteries already in the world. Talking about the guardians, stone eaters, and history builds off of what was present in the first book, and I really appreciate a deeper look at this world.

6. That said, the focus of this book is more on the micro-experiences of Essun and Nassun changing, so it lacks the consistent micro-macro interplay that made the last novel so good. Where the theme of the last one is about this interplay between the culture, climate, and people—a call towards working together in understanding—the theme of this one is more about familial relationships. Essun, Ykka, and Nassun are all dealing with family issues. Essun needs to ignore Nassun in order to save the world, Ykka needs to prove to her family that parts of her family are useful, Nassun needs to kill her father in order to survive. But outside of these goals, Essun broods on all the death she has caused in her own family. Ykka kills Cutter in order to save the rest. Nassun kills a whole town in order to keep Schaffa safe. The point being that everything is a choice, and every choice has an upside and a downside. Every good act comes at a cost, and every bad act also comes at a cost. That’s what Jemisin argues here.
“No vote. Leave. Go join Rennanis if they’ll have you. But if you stay, no part of this comm gets to decide that any other part of this comm is expendable. No voting on who gets to be people.”
7. In all, I am so excited for the third book to come out in August. It’s the top of my list for 2017, tied with Ann Leckie’s unannounced but heavily hinted at new project. Yes, this wasn’t the greatest book I’ve read, but it was a fascinating journey that ended in an appetite-whetting place. A place where Essun doesn’t know about the surprise stone fist that the reader knows about, a slippery slope heading towards a showdown between mother and daughter, and more space for Jemisin to explain this intricate world. I know this isn’t the best writing, but Jemisin improved her writing here, and I really appreciate that. I understand the story seems to meander before a sudden rush to the titular gate at the end, but it held my attention through the changes the world and characters were undergoing. This book travels a long way from start to finish, and almost nothing on that journey dampened my interest, excitement, or enthusiasm.

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