The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin (2016) (read in 2017)
Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.
This is the second book of the Broken Earth series. We follow Essun on her journey south, away from the massive Rift at the equator—the one that Alabaster ripped in order to break the stranglehold on humanity of the Fulcrum and the equatorial cities. Essun still seeks Nassun, her daughter, who is even further south. She joins up with Hoa, a strange child and Tonkee, a filthy but intelligent comm-less woman. They end up in Castrima, an underground chamber of crystals that are run by ancient technology to provide water and energy for its denizens. There is a sort of safety there, with an uneasy peace between humans and orogenes.
We learn that Tonkee is actually a Leader who Essun met many years ago, when she was in-training at the Fulcrum. We also learn that Hoa is actually stone eater—and that there are other stone eaters in Castrima. They have their own agenda. There are others that helping a city to attack Castrima (Rennanis). The crystal cave is indefensible. Even Alabaster—who has also returned, with his own stone-eater Antimony in tow—cannot help, as he is turning to stone himself (every time he practices orogeny—or magic, as he teaches Essun). He teaches Essun much more of humanity’s deep history and much more about how to control orogeny on a deeper level—on the level of magic (the silver).
Meanwhile Nassun is learning all of this on her own, without anyone’s help, mastering magic in a way the Essun likely never will. Still, Essun uses the Obelisk Gate to fight off Renannis’s attack—and to strike at the heart of the city to destroy them once and for all. She also uses the tremendous power to hunt and trap (but not kill—even she can’t do that) stone eaters in the crystals of Castrima. She is the second person to control the gate in millenia, after Alabaster, who used the Gate to create the Rift that started the latest Season.
The book ends with Alabaster having died (or been transformed), Castrima on the move and Nassun in Antarctica. We have learned much more about the myths underlying this world and this version of humanity’s history—but it’s nothing compared to what comes in the third book.
“There is something underneath the heat of the volcano, interspersed amid the wavelets of motion that dance through the earth. It’s easy to manipulate the waves and heat, but hard to even perceive this other thing, which is perhaps why Mama taught Nassun to look for waves and heat instead. But if Nassun can grasp the other thing, which is finer and more delicate and also more precise than the heat and waves… if she can shape it into a kind of sharp edge, and file it down to infinite fineness, and slice it across the shaft like so— There is a quick, high-pitched hiss as the air between her and Jija stirs. Then the chain tip of the harpoon shaft drops loose, the shorn faces of metal glimmering mirror-smooth in the afternoon light.”
“Who knows when some version of our ancestors first crawled out of the ash and started jabbering at each other? Thirty thousand years? Forty? A long time to be the pathetic creatures we are now, huddling behind our walls and putting all our wits, all our learning, toward the singular task of staying alive. That’s all we make now: Better ways to do field surgery with improvised equipment. Better chemicals, so we can grow more beans with little light. Once, we were so much more.””
“I don’t think it’s what they’re made of that makes stone eaters so different. I think it’s that no one can live that long and not become something entirely alien.””
“You’d almost forgotten this part of him: the dreamer, the rebel, always reconsidering the way things have always been because maybe they should never have been that way in the first place. He’s right, too. Life in the Stillness discourages reconsideration, reorientation. Wisdom is set in stone, after all;”
“The Guardians who work with the Fulcrum are one of the factions I told you about, so to speak. They’re the ones who want the status quo: roggas made safe and useful, stills doing all the work and thinking they run the place, Guardians actually in charge of everything. Controlling the people who can control natural disasters.””
“But then you haven’t spent much time thinking about Guardians, when you weren’t in the immediate vicinity of one. Maybe this is another kind of thought aversion you’ve been conditioned to: Don’t look up, and don’t think about those damned smiles. You decide to make yourself think about them now. “But Guardians die during a Season…” Shit. “They say they die…” Shit. “Of course they don’t.” Alabaster lets out a rusty sound that might be a laugh. “I’m a bad influence.””
“She seizes you. If you hadn’t been used to this from Alabaster, you would have panicked, but it’s the same as what happened back then: Ykka’s orogeny sort of melds with and consumes yours. You relax and let her take control, because instantly you realize you are stronger than her and could, should, take control yourself—but you are the learner here, and she is the teacher. So you hold back, to learn. It is a dance, of sorts.
“Her orogeny is like… a river with eddies, curling and flowing in patterns and at a pace. Yours is faster, deeper, more straightforward, more forceful, but she modulates you so efficiently that the two flows come together. You flow slower and more loosely. She flows faster, using your depth to boost her force. For an instant you open your eyes, see her leaning against the crystal column and sliding down to crouch at its base so that she doesn’t have to pay attention to her body while she concentrates… and then you are within the geode’s crystal substrate, through its shell and burrowing into the rock that surrounds it, flowing around the warps and wends of ancient cold stone.
“Flowing with Ykka, so easily that you are surprised. Alabaster was rougher than this, but maybe he wasn’t used to doing it when he first tried it with you. Ykka has done this with others, and she is as fine a teacher as any you have ever had. But— But. Oh! You see it so easily now. Magic. There are threads of it interwoven with Ykka’s flow. Supporting and catalyzing her drive where it is weaker than yours, soothing the layer of contact between you. Where’s all this coming from? She drags it out of the rock itself, which is another wonder, because you have not realized until now that there is any magic in the rock. But there it is, flitting between the infinitesimal particles of silicon and calcite as easily as it did between the particles of Alabaster’s stone substance.”
“The boilbugs move. You perceive them as a wave of bright heat that surges out of underground nests and aboveground feeding piles that have formed around their many victims—hundreds of nests, millions of bugs, you had no idea the forest of Castrima was so riddled with them. Tonkee’s warning about the meat shortage is meaningless and too late; you could never have competed against such successful predators. You were always going to have to get used to the taste of human anyway.”
“Pissed off the wrong rogga, Hoa said of his own incarceration. Yes, these enemy stone eaters rusting did. You shout again but this time it is effort, it is aggression. SNAP and you break lattices and magic strands and reseal them to your own design. CRACK and you lift whole crystal shafts to throw them like spears and grind your enemies beneath. You look for Gray Man, the stone eater who hurt Hoa, but he is not among the mountains that threaten your home. These are just his minions. Fine. You’ll send him a message, then, written in their fear.”
“Some flee north. Unacceptable, and distance is nothing for you now. You pull up and wheel and pierce down again, and there is Rennanis, nestled within its lattice of nodes like a spider among its bundled, sucked-dry prey. The Gate is meant to do things on a planetary scale. It is nothing to you to drive power down and inflict upon every citizen of Rennanis the same thing you did to the woman who would’ve beaten Penty to death. Bullies are bullies. So simple to twist the flickering silver between their cells until those cells grow still, solid. Stone. It is done, and Castrima’s war won, in the span of a breath.”
“Suddenly it doesn’t matter. Nassun sighs and rubs her face with her hands, as weary as Father Earth must be after so many eternities of hate. Hate is tiring. Nihilism is easier, though she does not know the word and will not for a few years. It’s what she’s feeling, regardless: an overwhelming sense of the meaninglessness of it all.”