The Obelisk Gate is a worthy nominee for the Hugo Award, but most of us didn’t feel that it was as good as Fifth Season.
True to form, N.K. Jemisin’s writing is strong, her characters are well crafted, and the world building is interesting. And yet the book falls somewhere short of what we had hoped for.
Although it sounds a bit strange, many of us tried to figure out what had actually happened in the book. As it turns out, not all that much. While interesting context is provided for the events of the preceding book and information is offered about the challenges to come, the characters didn’t actually do very much or move the plot along in any significant ways.
Perhaps the book suffers from being the second in a trilogy. As such, it can’t have the originality and vigor of a first book and also can’t have as epic a conclusion as a third book.
Jemisin’s strength as a writer and deft social commentary make this a worthwhile read. Questions of race, class and gender are explored thoughtfully and with nuance. The characters speak with their own voices, and grow.
Alabaster’s slow decline as he tries to pass along knowledge to Essun, and Essun’s growing control of her magic could have been nothing more than a Hero’s Journey ™ like that of Obi-Wan and Luke. But Jemisin’s more nuanced character building elevates this relationship to something more touching and poignant. Again, she raises the readers’ expectations as they progress through the book.
Photo from SFWA
The book’s final 50 pages are where the second-book syndrome really comes to the forefront, because nothing is resolved other than knowing that there are significant actions to come. Needing to read the next book to have a dénouement is not a satisfying ending.
The Hugo Awards have often honoured multiple books in a well-loved series, but usually not in back-to-back years, and usually only when the author has taken the series in new directions. The Obelisk Gate is unlikely to buck this trend.
None of us would be upset if Obelisk Gate won — and some of us are likely to vote for it. At the same time, we're all hoping that one of the other nominees astonishes us.