60 pages 2 hours read

N. K. Jemisin

The Obelisk Gate

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2016

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Summary and Study Guide


The Obelisk Gate, originally published in 2016, is the second entry in N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. The trilogy is deemed “science fantasy” for the way it blends scientific explanations with the magic and supernaturalism of the fantasy genre, though Jemisin’s writing aims to subvert the aspects of the fantasy genre that traditionally reflect a white, male, Eurocentric worldview. The first book in the series, The Fifth Season, won the Hugo Award (generally considered the most prestigious award in science fiction writing) in 2016. The Obelisk Gate won the same award in 2017, as did the series finale, The Stone Sky, in 2018. Jemisin is the first Black woman to win this award and the only person to have won it three years consecutively. This guide refers to the 2016 Orbit (Hatchette Book Group) Edition.

Content Warning: The source material deals extensively with bigotry and enslavement in a fantasy setting; it also contains references to forced reproduction and child abuse.

Plot Summary

The prequel to The Obelisk Gate focuses on three characters eventually revealed to be the same person at different periods of her life. Damaya, a young girl, inadvertently reveals her nature as an “orogene” who can control seismic activity—a valuable but also dangerous skill on the seismically unstable continent of the Stillness. Schaffa, a “Guardian” charged with controlling orogenes, takes her to the Fulcrum, where she undergoes a brutal training regimen to prepare her for state service. After qualifying as an orogene, Damaya takes the name “Syenite.” In her mid-twenties, she is paired with the experienced orogene Alabaster to clear a harbor in the “comm” (city) of Allia; she is also expected to conceive an orogenic child with him. While there, she accidentally raises an ancient obelisk from the ocean, setting off a chain of events that causes a volcanic explosion. Alabaster and Syenite are saved by a stone eater (mysterious, statue-like beings) and taken to the remote island of Meov, where Syenite gives birth to a child and the pair briefly find happiness with an orogene named Innon. When Guardians threaten to recapture them, a stone eater drags Alabaster into the ground, and Syenite kills their child rather than allow him to be enslaved. She renames herself “Essun” and eventually marries a man named Jija, settling in the comm of Tirimo. On the same day that a massive rift opens up, kickstarting a new season, Jija discovers that his children with Essun are orogenic; he kills their son and abducts their daughter, Nassun. Essun sets off to find Nassun but instead ends up in the comm of Castrima, where she finds Alabaster and learns that he caused the Rifting.

The Obelisk Gate continues the action where The Fifth Season ended: The Stillness is still being ravaged by an unprecedented Season that threatens to destroy all life, while Essun has arrived in Castrima, an underground comm located inside a massive geode, and reunited with her former mentor and part-time lover, Alabaster. The Obelisk Gate changes the narrative focal points to explore additional characters important to Essun: Nassun, her missing daughter, and Schaffa, her former Guardian.

Nassun’s narrative backtracks to the beginning of Essun’s narrative in The Fifth Season, picking up the day Nassun comes home from school to discover that her father, Jija, has killed her younger brother Uche. Despite this, Nassun is willing to leave with Jija because it means getting away from her mother. They are on the road when the Rifting hits, and they only survive because Nassun uses orogeny to protect them. Jija is horrified by what she can do, but Nassun learns to manipulate him as they head south in search of a comm called Found Moon, which he has heard can “cure” her.

Ten years prior, Schaffa survives the explosion Syenite caused at Meov by making a deal with Father Earth that costs him most of who he was in exchange for strength. He loses his memory and becomes “contaminated,” meaning he hears the angry voice of Father Earth inside his head urging him to do his bidding. Schaffa encounters an orogene boy and realizes that he can use the boy to manage his constant pain. Schaffa’s instincts tell him to collect orogenes and start a comm in the south.

In the present, Essun adjusts to life in Castrima and becomes an advisor to Ykka, the orogene headwoman of the comm. She also starts to take lessons with Alabaster, who is slowly turning to stone—a consequence of using the mysterious obelisks that float above the Stillness when he created the rift that began the current Season. He wants her to learn how to use “magic”—a special, more powerful, kind of orogeny—so that she can use the obelisks to finish what he started. He eventually explains why: 10 years prior, he was taken to a city on the other side of the planet by a stone eater. While there, he learned the origin of the Seasons. People (who he believes were the ancestors of orogenes) dug into the core of the planet in an attempt to harness its power. Things went awry, the moon was flung out of orbit, and the first Season occurred. Ever since, Father Earth, the Guardians, and the stone eaters have been waging a three-sided war over what to do with humanity. Alabaster believes things can be fixed by returning the moon to orbit—this is what Essun will need the Obelisk Gate for.

When Nassun and Jija arrive in Found Moon, they are met by Schaffa, who quickly recognizes Nassun’s ability and has no intent of “curing” her. He takes her under his wing, and Nassun grows more distant with her father. She feels accepted for who and what she is for the first time in her life. She discovers how to use magic on her own (she calls it “silver”) and learns how to help Schaffa with his pain, though he refuses her aid. After she accidentally taps into an obelisk and turns another student to stone, Schaffa takes Nassun with him to the Antarctic Fulcrum, where he intends to kill the remaining orogenes. While there, Nassun realizes why her mother was so harsh with her and turns the entire comm to stone. On the way back to Found Moon, Nassun is approached by a stone eater she calls Steel. Steel convinces her that the only way she can avoid hurting the people she loves is to destroy the planet by crashing the moon into it.

Meanwhile, Castrima comes under siege by a larger, Equatorial comm called Rennanis. As pressure mounts in Castrima, many of the stills (non-orogenes) and orogenes turn on one another. Essun loses control when she sees a young orogene child being beaten by a still, reminding her of Uche. Alabaster manages to prevent Essun from killing everyone, but it results in him turning to stone. Castrima survives the attack from Rennanis because Essun learns how to use the Obelisk Gate, enabling her to turn all of the attackers to stone. Before exiting the Obelisk Gate, Essun senses a trace of Nassun in an obelisk to the south. Using the Obelisk Gate also destroys the geode Castrima was in and turns Essun’s arm to stone.

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