The Obelisk Gate (Broken Earth), by N. K. Jemisin
The second in the Broken Earth series, this book is also the second one to win a Hugo Award (2017). This will have some spoilers for The Fifth Season.
The story picks up a considerable time after The Fifth Season. At the end of that book things had fallen apart for Essun and Alabaster, with Essun back on the mainland and Alabaster pulled into the ground by a stone eater. Essun is now married and has two children. She’s married to a man prejudiced against orogenes, the people born with the power to heal breaks in the planet and some with enough power to stop volcanoes. While Essun is away he discovers that both their children have orogene powers. He beats his son to death but can’t do the same to eight-year-old daughter Nessun. He takes her away to a remote area and abandons her. She soon meets up with a Guardian who was nearly killed in the final battle of the first book. Nessun heals him and begins traveling with him in the increasingly desolate landscape.
This sets Essun on a hunt for her daughter, traveling with Hoa, the mysterious pale boy, and is tracked by the young woman raised in Leadership who found the mysterious hidden room in Fulcrum, the cruel school that trained orogenes.
Essun is now in an immense underground community (comm), built almost like a geode with crystals on nearly every surface. The comm is called Castrima, and it’s hidden from the roving refugees and bandits who scour the land above for food. Here she’s reunited with Alabaster. Weak, near death, and both watched over and slowly consumed by a stone eater named Antimony, Alabaster continues pushing to have Essun gain increasing power from the obelisks with the goal of healing the planet by bringing its moon back into orbit.
Meanwhile, Nessun wanders with her Guardian, increasing her own powers without training, holding resentful feelings about the mother who raised her with the same controlling cruelty used on Essun at Fulcrum.
The narrative is in constant transition, moving from Essun and Alabaster in Castrima, a comm working to control and feed its underground population and fight off raiders, then back to Nessun as her power increases along with her distrust of her Guardian escort.
There are concerns that this latest “fifth season” of volcanic ash may last 10,000 years. There are also concerns that the stone eaters have their own battle, with some wanting to support the human life on the planet and others hoping they’ll be wiped out leaving the planet to them.
This is a book that has the power to be a compulsive read, even for those who aren’t fond of the fantasy genre. I steer away from a lot of book that are filled with elves, dwarves, and dragons for the most part. I read Lord of the Rings and there are few authors that can write anything nearly as interesting. Nonetheless this was a compulsive read for me, much like an NPR critic who said he could barely eat or sleep wanting to see what came next. Jemisin has created something unique, compelling characters and storylines written with a prose elevated above most general fiction, let alone science/fantasy. It’s not entirely unheard of for the Hugos to honor multiple books in a series. They did that for Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis. It is, however, rare for them to focus on books with such extraordinary literary quality.
The third book is now out. Review to follow soon.