Home > Clement's Game > Fantasy Round 48: The Obelisk Gate

Fantasy Round 48: The Obelisk Gate

I followed up reading N. K. Jemisin‘s The Fifth Season with its sequel, The Obelisk Gate.  The Obelisk Gate is a good book, too, but I’m starting to be frustrated by the characters.

Also, it looks like some of my speculation last time didn’t quite hit the mark, based on the reveals in book two.

Naturally — spoilers follow.

I still don't know where these fancy decorations show up in the book.

I still don’t know where these fancy decorations show up in the book.

Planet Identity: Still Fuzzy

Based on the map in the front of the book, the planet has a distance of at least 10,000 miles from one pole to the other, and not too much more than that.  That implies a radius somewhat greater than 3200 miles or so.

Earth has a mean radius of 3959 miles, and slightly less than that at the equator.

It also used to have one Moon.  So, perhaps this is the Earth, in the long distant future, after somebody messed up the geology with magic and decided to throw the Moon on a high orbit… for fun?  Or something?

Meanwhile, the big, ancient facility tied to the obelisks is in the middle of the ocean side of the planet, drilled down into an ancient shield volcano, which makes me wonder if that’s Hawaii in the far-distant-future.  But that by itself implies that somebody has messed up the geology, as we have more than one continent on our present Earth, and in the natural course of events, it’s the Atlantic Ocean that’s growing larger (check out the Mid-Atlantic Ridge), not the Pacific.

Regardless, since this planet isn’t much bigger than Earth, in order to get all the fun earthquakes, we either have to have some major differences in internal composition, or…


Okay, fine.  Orogeny is magic.  It looks like my vague ideas about orogeny being a means of connecting with some ancient nano-super-tech handwavium have gone the way of Yumenes.

Even better, while orogeny conserves energy, pure magic apparently doesn’t, allowing such feats as shrinking down a massive floating obelisk into a tiny dagger and turning organic material into much-denser stone with the same volume.

Thus, I’m going to drop most of my attempts at reconciling orogeny with physics now.


Well… relative to my speculation on the preceding book, I pretty clearly got the question of “what happened to the Moon” wrong.  Rather than crashing into Father Earth, it just went on an orogene-enforced holiday.  And, naturally, it’s coming back.

I still want to know why.  Stupid accident?  Weird plan for controlling their planet?  Something else?

Broken Characters

Almost all of the main characters are individuals living in and damaged by a disturbing cycle of effective slavery and abuse.  Certainly, this applies to Alabaster, Essun, and Nassun, the three powerful orogenes whose lives define most of the modern-day part of the story, as well as the Guardian Schaffa.

They hurt, and they hurt others immensely with their various powers.

I feel the most sympathy for Nassun at the moment, as she’s been mistreated by her mother, and then manipulated by Schaffa; but I’m having trouble empathizing with the others.  At some point, a character’s frequent trauma-driven destruction starts making the story less fun.  And when it’s most of the characters… that’s frustrating.  I like having characters I can root for, but I’m left wondering if what Essun accomplished at the end of the second book should be considered genocide in self-defense, and hoping that Nassun fails to pull off an Earth-shattering-kaboom in the final book.

I realize that real people do have this kind of trauma, complexity, and conflict to deal with (less the magic, of course); but I think I’m going to need to read something more cheerful next.

  1. michaelbusch
    2016/09/10 at 9:58 am

    A couple of world-building comments:

    (1) I still say that the planet of The Stillness should _not_ be Earth. The geology doesn’t work out for any time within millions of years of now; assuming business-as-usual less magic interference. And having the Moon escape Earth and be on as eccentric an orbit as described in the book wouldn’t be stable if this system had Jupiter (and also Mars and Venus and so on) in it. But we’ll see what Jemisin has to say about it in the end.

    (2) A significant portion of the plot of “The Obelisk Gate” is driven by the survivors of the initial disaster needing a source of meat to avoid anemia and nerve problems. In real life, this would correspond to vitamin B12 deficiency ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitamin_B12_deficiency ) – which sometimes shows up in people on vegan diets. B12 is produced by bacteria, which live in the guts of many herbivore animals but not in human guts. You can avoid deficiency by eating meat from those animals or animals that eat them. Or you can grow an appropriate bacterial culture; pull off part of it; cook that to kill the bacteria; and get the B12 from that.

    In the book, even small communities maintain fungal cultures from which they can refine antibiotics. Before the disaster, more specialist groups could prepare antiandrogen preparations for oral administration. So why aren’t B12-producing cultures standard-issue in community Season supplies? There was ample time for someone to figure out why rabbits eat their own dung; and to develop things from there.

    In terms of Jemisin’s story, the “we need meat and can’t stay put unless we eat one another” is an effective motivator to keep that part of the plot moving. In terms of in-universe reasons, the only idea I’ve got is that the Guardians have long been imposing technology control on the rest of The Stillness – for whatever spooky motivations they have.

  1. 2016/09/17 at 6:04 am

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