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Literature / The Obelisk Gate

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“A WHAT?” YOU SAY.
“A moon.”

The Obelisk Gate is a 2016 novel by N. K. Jemisin and a continuation of The Fifth Season. Continued in The Stone Sky.


The Obelisk Gate contains examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: It turns out that Essun was this to Nassun, since she broke her hand in order to teach her control - just as Schaffa did to her so many years before. Also, Jija, who wants to subject Nassun to the orogene version of conversion therapy.
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  • Abusive Precursors: Alabaster went to a city on the other side of the world after Antimony rescued him from Meov. What he witnessed there has him convinced that the humans who built the Obelisks are the ones who started the Seasons.
  • Affably Evil: Schaffa, although to what extent he is the same person in the first book remains to be seen
  • After the End: While "dead civ" ruins leftover from previous Seasons appear in the first book, they feature much more prominently in this one. This trope is also played unusually because the reader is seeing this cycle end.
  • Arc Words: Every character seems intent on making as many cryptic references to the moon as will fit. From Schaffa's 'Found Moon' to Nassun's wish to 'catch the moon' to Alabaster's wistful thoughts about the moon, it's known early on that the moon is no longer there but the exact reasons for its disappearance and consequent impact on the seasons is unknown.
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  • Armor-Piercing Question: "Did they break your hand?"
  • The Artifact: Essun's point of view being narrated in second person made sense in The Fifth Season due to there being multiple timelines in play. This convention continues here, mostly because it would be jarring to suddenly stop.
  • Artifact of Doom: Castrima's control center seems to be a place where Obelisks are made. It also houses some decidedly more dangerous moving parts.
    • The titular Obelisk Gate also seems quite finicky, prone to killing orogenes who try to use it improperly and turning those who do use it correctly to stone.
  • Artistic License – Biology: Subverted. Alabaster explicitly mentions that his nervous system functions are intact and suffers infections. In the previous book, the sessapinae are stated to be located at the base of the brainstem and decerebrate orogenes are used as node maintainers.
  • Ascended Extra: Nassun and Jija are only mentioned in the first book, but Nassun becomes a main character.
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  • Asshole Victim: Jija. He is warned twice once by Schaffa and once by Nassun and still tries to kill her.
  • Awful Truth: 'DID THEY BREAK YOUR HAND'
  • Back from the Dead: It is heavily implied that whatever killed Alabaster actually turned him into a Stone Eater.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Nassun kills Jija by turning him to stone and is told that she will end up killing everything she loves.
    • On the other story arc, the Obelisk Gate is opened, meaning the world has a chance, but the same thing that happened to Alabaster is happening to Essun. On the smaller scale, the people of Castrima are saved but their home is irreparably damaged, making them commless.
  • Broken Pedestal: Nassun used to look up to Jija. Not anymore.
  • Cataclysm Backstory: Alabaster reveals that the reason the Earth is angry and that there are so many apocalypses is that a society of orogenes accidentally ruined the moon's orbit. And Hoa was one of them.
  • Cast Full of Crazy: From the trauma and tragedy experienced and witnessed by the Orogenes, the horror that humankind faces when confronted by the brutal environment of the Stillness and the traumatising process used to make the Guardians no one quite makes it out mentally intact.
  • Clingy MacGuffin: Essun's spinel floats precisely one foot behind her head except when she's actively using it.
  • Colony Drop: The moon is coming back. From what Schaffa says to Nassun at the end of the book, it appears the Earth plans to have her make it crash into the planet.
  • Crapsack World: Not that it was great before the massive continent-splitting earthquake, but between the roving gangs, the impending collapse of most of society, and the ash blocking out the sun, things have gone even further downhill.
  • Cryptic Conversation: Alabaster is this to an infuriating degree. Schaffa also seems to be prone to this but in a more roundabout manner due to some retrograde amnesia as well as being potentially untrustworthy
  • Dangerous Forbidden Technique: As he's drowning off the coast of Meov, Schaffa makes a bargain with Father Earth that all Guardians are wary of. He lives, but loses substantial chunks of his memory and personality in the process. Ironically, this makes him less abusive.
    • Similarly, use of the titular Obelisk Gate grants the user world-spanning awareness and terrible power, but turns them partly to stone and poisons their orogeny so that using it makes the stone spread.
  • Death World: The Stillness becomes this during a season, as its people and animals become meaner in order to survive. Boil bugs are this book's iconic harmless-turned-deadly monster.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: The dynamic between Jija and Nassun is a pretty clear analog for a queer child and a parent who refuses to accept them, with oregene standing in for sexual orientation.
  • Doomed Hometown: Every place Essun has ever lived in has been destroyed because of her, either indirectly or by her own hand. The exception is the Fulcrum, which Alabaster destroyed for his own reasons at the start of the first book. Nassun's story implies that she is headed down the same path.
  • Dramatic Irony: Essun is unaware of exactly what happened to Nassun
  • Eaten Alive: Hoa gets partially eaten in a fight with a rival Stone Eater, which he recovers from with some difficulty. Also, as Alabaster is slowly petrified by his powers, Antimony eats the stone parts; subverted when this is revealed to be part of the process of transforming him into a Stone Eater.
  • Equivalent Exchange: Alabaster and Essun's opening of the Obelisk Gate occurs at the cost of turning to stone.
  • Fantasy-Forbidding Father: Jija to Nassun.
  • Finagle's Law: Essun kills Corundum rather than let Schaffa take him in the first book and by the second book Nassun has ended up with Schaffa.
  • A Form You Are Comfortable With: Hoa reveals that this why he chose to appear to Nassun in as human a guise as possible. It's heavily implied that his injuries in his fight with "Steel" mean he can't take that form any longer.
  • Freudian Excuse: Jija hates and fears orogenes because he witnessed one of his cousins accidentally (and brutally) killing another cousin by icing them.
  • Gaia's Vengeance: Folklore says that Father Earth hates humanity because they stole his only child. Evidence suggests that the Stillness' tectonic instability was caused by the planet losing it's moon. Whether it's an angry Genius Loci or simple physics causing the Seasons, this trope applies.
  • Gambit Pileup: An extremely confusing and obscured pileup is going on in the background of the novel with factions which include Orogenes, the Guardians and the Stone-eaters. However, the book is vague about where the loyalties of the characters lie and this is especially unclear of Schaffa and the contaminated Guardians
  • Generation Xerox: Nassun has apparently inherited Essun's powers, self control, has the same Fulcrum training due to her mother and meets her mother's Guardian and loves him like a parent just like she does. It gets lampshaded by Schaffa.
  • Genius Loci: Father Earth is speculated to be sentient and hateful to Orogenes because they took his only child from him, the Moon. Restoring said Moon to its orbit may be the only way to stop the Seasons.
  • Have You Tried Not Being a Monster?: Jija was somehow convinced that Found Moon is a place for "curing" orogenes of their magic. As it becomes more and more apparent that this isn't the case, he gets angrier and angrier at Nassun for not trying hard enough.
  • Hearing Voices: All the Guardians can hear the voice of Father Earth. They aren't supposed to listen to it, like Schaffa—the ones that do are usually killed.
    • It is implied that orogenes, even those without the ability to perceive magic, can tell which Guardians are which. The confrontation at the Antarctic Fulcrum has one of the senior orogenes declaring, "You're both tainted!"
  • Heel Realization: Zigzagged with Schaffa. He realizes what a horrible person he has been for all of his life, only to proceed to kill several innocent people for reasons unclear even to Schaffa himself. Although he tells Nassun that the Fulcrum's way of raising orogenes was horrific and that he means to atone for his part in it, Schaffa proceeds to train her to be a living weapon.
    • Essun has a few as well, notably in her dealings with Ykka. Like her judgment of Ykka as a poor orogene for not being able to move a pebble, the Fulcrum's method of measuring precision. When it counts, Ykka is incredibly precise, in some ways beyond what Essun can do. It's just that she had never learned to move pebbles because why the hell would she?
  • History Repeats: Civilization in the Stillness seems to follow a general cycle where it builds up over time and is then set far back by a Season. Sanzed looks to be unusually prosperous at its height, perhaps owing to the node maintainers keeping the equatorial regions free of shakes.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: With the lack of wild animals for meat, Tonkee states that this is inevitable for the survivors.
  • Irony: Orogenes are seen as the servants of Evil Earth, and are discriminated against and persecuted as a result. In actual fact, it's the Guardians, created to control and dominate the Fulcrum trained orogenes, who have fragments or corestones of the Earth placed into them, and become its People Puppets when they inevitably become corrupted.
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: Schaffa loses many of his memories after he draws upon the source of the Guardians' power to survive the destruction of Meov.
  • Lost Technology: Dead civ ruins are this. Given that the book takes place primarily in Castrima (a comm built inside a dead civ ruin) and largely concerns the harnessing of the Obelisks (dead civ artifacts), this trope is particularly relevant in this book.
  • Love Cannot Overcome: A familial version with Jija, who is torn between seeing Nassun as his beloved daughter and as a vile orogene. Ultimately, when he realizes that she's not interested in "curing" her orogeny, he tries to kill her and gets Taken for Granite for it.
  • Medieval Stasis: Averted, hard. Sanzed civilization looks to have been somewhere between World War One and World War Two tech level, with things like electric light, antibiotics, and telegraphs. Some of the dead civ ruins are closer to Crystal Spires and Togas level. It's implied that each Season knocks civilization back by several centuries.
  • Morality Pet: Nassun deliberately makes herself one to her father, in order to keep him from murdering her like he did her brother, and later becomes one to Schaffa.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Nassun after turning Eitz into stone.
  • No Immortal Inertia: The Guardians are kept alive for centuries by their corestones. Remove the stone, however, and a Guardian will age and die in a matter of months.
  • Older Than They Look: The Guardians are all centuries old.
  • Omnicidal Maniac: There are three factions struggling to survive Father Earth's restlessness. One of them wants to snuff out life forever. The gray Stone Eater that Nassun dubs "Steel" seems to be this faction's face.
  • Our Vampires Are Different: We learn here that the Guardians, who are the children of orogenes, aren't just not orogenes. They invert it. They feed on magic. Without it, they go insane and kill. They can feed off of the magic produced by people, but they can really only get their fix from orogenes.
  • Parental Substitute: The Guardians. They're not especially nice ones.
  • Person of Mass Destruction: Essun has destroyed—intentionally or otherwise—no fewer than four comms including one of the largest cities to survive the Rifting over the course of her life.
    • Nassun has also racked up quite the body count by the end of the book, even though she's not even a teenager yet.
  • Random Power Ranking: Orogenes are graded from 1 to 10 rings at the Fulcrum although the system is subverted/highly rigged to ensure that they are easier to control.
  • Really 700 Years Old: As in the first book, Hoa looks like a child at first but is millennia old. This book also elaborates that Schaffa is several hundred years old, though his damaged memory makes him uncertain of his exact age.
  • Replacement Goldfish: Although Essun isn't dead, Schaffa considers Nassun this.
  • Science Fantasy: A mixture of both genres.
  • Stepford Smiler: Partly subverted. The Guardians smile to release endorphins which interact with receptors in their brain to reduce their pain.
  • Straw Man Has A Point: The Fulcrum has propagated the idea that orogenes cannot be trusted and will destroy everything if given the chance. By the end of this book, Essun has destroyed four separate comms, two of which she lived in, with her orogeny.
  • Title Drop: The Obelisk Gate is a method of using the obelisks to restore the Moon to Earth's orbit.
  • Tough Love: Essun took this approach when teaching Nassun to control her powers. Too bad it made Nassun all the more willing to get away from her.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: The Guardians. To the extent that Schaffa comments that they were too good at encouraging fear of untrained Orogenes in the human population.
  • Was Once a Man: Stone eaters are made from humans. It would appear that the turning-to-stone effect from using the Obelisk Gate is the process for creating them, since Alabaster has returned as one by the end. Although according to Hoa, they still consider themselves human.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Alabaster created the Rifting not only to destroy the Fulcrum, but to provide a power source to use the Obelisk Gate to restore the Moon to Earth's orbit and end the seasons forever.
  • Wham Line:
    • “My name is Schaffa.”
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: A central theme of the books, where the characters debate whether Orogenes and stone eaters count as humans.
  • Would Hurt a Child: A disturbing amount of people, if that child is an orogene. Special mention goes to Jija, who killed his son and tries to kill Nassun. There's also a woman in Castrima who attacks an orogene child while drunk.
  • Wrong Context Magic: Ykka is able to do things with orogeny that Essun has never seen before and doesn't understand, like subconsciously attracting other orogenes from hundreds of miles away and developing an instant Touch of Death without any other physical effects. Ykka declines to explain, saying she'd rather keep a few tricks up her sleeve.
  • You Are Not Ready: Alabaster considers Essun this initially. Essun counters by calling him a piss-poor teacher who doesn't know how to help her become ready, forcing her to figure things out on her own.
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