The Obelisk Gate is an exemplar of the fantasy trilogy second book.
Readers of the fantasy genre often dread the second book of a trilogy. It is almost inevitably a bridge between what was surely a cliffhanger-heavy but ultimately satisfying climax to book one—because no publisher is going to print a 500-page first-book-of-a-trilogy that does not have some decisive storytelling—and the ultimate finale to the trilogy, which is also surely momentous. Stuck in between these walloping crescendo moments, book two usually falls much flatter. It is the characters dealing with the events of book one and preparing for the action of book three.
The Obelisk Gate, book two of N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, is no exception to this rule (for a detailed look at book one, click here). This book features Essun, the hero of book one, The Fifth Season, settling into her new community of Castrima. She is reconciling what she learned in the previous book and trying to figure out a way to deal with the newly broken world in which she lives. The Fifth Season boldly opened with the end of the world, but that means that The Obelisk Gate has to make do with the world that has stubbornly persisted.
The Obelisk Gate also maintains The Fifth Season’s structure of using three point-of-view characters; however, unlike book one, where all three POV characters were actually the same person—Essun—in different stages of her life, The Obelisk Gate features three different individuals for its points of view: Essun, her daughter Nassun and a man named Schaffa. Essun is in Castrima, struggling to understand how to save the world. Nassun, an orogene like her mother, fled her hometown of Tirimo and made her way to the village of Found Moon, where she discovered a refuge for child orogenes operated by Schaffa. Schaffa, however, is an ancient (as in thousands of years old) man who had worked for millennia as a Guardian, the state-sanctioned police force charged with safeguarding orogenes in the Stillness, the world of the trilogy. Schaffa was once the Guardian in charge of policing Essun, Nassun’s mother, so he has a deep history with Nassun’s family that the girl is not aware of.
This second book in the trilogy, again as is endemic to the genre, also has to do the heavy lifting for the series in terms of worldbuilding. Book ones, in general, are allowed to introduce the most basic and exciting elements of a fantasy world to readers, enough to sink in the hooks and raise a few central mysteries to keep the reader turning the pages. The closing books of trilogies get to finally solve the mysteries for good. Meanwhile, book twos are stuck in the middle and have to carefully release a few details on the key questions—to keep readers engaged—without revealing too much and ruining the finale. If you ask a reader to describe the lore of a trilogy after the second book, it will almost always sound more than a little silly. Here, this is the case: the Earth itself is a living organism and it is an angry father due to the hubris of humanity, which stole its child, the moon, from it in an act of greed or stupidity (or both) and that is why the Stillness is so replete with seismic discord. Now that sounds ridiculous, but the trilogy’s third book makes good on this premise and shows that what sounds silly on the surface actually packs a real punch. That is the curse of book two. Ditto for the central ploy of the trilogy: its use of the second-person perspective, which crackled with real energy in book one but here is reduced to a few meta-commentary jokes and feels stale. Its real utility will only be revealed in book three. Always, book two is punting to the culminating follow-up book.
In this spirit, The Obelisk Gate is an exemplar of the fantasy trilogy second book. It pushes the plot forward by transitioning Essun to the point that she is willing and able to do the heavy lifting required in the trilogy’s finale. It establishes Nassun as her mother’s foil and stages book three as not just a battle for the fate of the world but also a mother-daughter showdown. Schaffa and the story’s central secondary characters—the stone eaters—are firmly entrenched in the overall narrative structure and allow Jemisin to connect the mother-daughter duel to the millennia-long struggle at the heart of the trilogy’s lore. Very little is resolved in The Obelisk Gate, but, of course, that was always going to be the case.