The Obelisk Gate – N. K. Jemisin

jemisin_obeliskgate_tpShockingly, I didn’t go into this one with high expectations. Sure its prequel, The Fifth Season, won the Hugo last year, but I was not exactly its heartiest supporter. In brief, I thought the writing itself was competent and an improvement on The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, but the characters were completely unlikeable and the story, save for a few details, was generic and uninspired. I enjoyed that she did not include any soppy romance, but that’s only because it was so bad in tHTK that managing not to do it again was blessed relief. But overall, I didn’t really enjoy it. It was just a bit… meh.

So in some senses, I preferred The Obelisk Gate. Not because it was any better, but because all of its problems are exactly the same, and so none of this was a surprise. It was familiarly dull and uninteresting. It was no longer a disappointment, simply a mindless bit of fantasy trash to power through. Because that is all this is. For all that I don’t feel any particular ire (or other emotion) for this book, what does grate on me is the extent to which so many of the reviews of it I’ve read go overboard on the praise. Because… I don’t see it. It’s like a slightly better-written, grimmer Trudi Canavan novel. And now I feel the need to check what Goodreads thinks of Canavan, which I won’t do because it’ll annoy me. But what I mean is, both of them fall solidly into a category of books – one that I don’t object to existing because it’s totally necessary and valuable if you’re in the mood – which are light, easy reading, easy to push through, escapist, but ultimately without literary merit beyond this. They may be fun, but they’re not good. And I really feel like this is a distinction which needs to be drawn, because those two things are not the same. You can’t compare them, in the same way you can’t compare, say… Merlin and Line of Duty. Sure, I enjoy them both, but one of them is silly and tropey and requires a vast quantity less skill and artistry to pull off. It is definitely my opinion that we should be rewarding “good” way, way more than we should be rewarding “fun trash”… because, well, aren’t awards meant to be praising skill?

Anyway. What all this means is that I have two opinions on this book. The first, on it purely as a book in a vacuum, is largely neutral. If I could give it a mark out of ten on Goodreads, it’d be a five. I don’t dislike it, I’m not sad I read it, but nor will I have any inclination to engage with it in the future (unless the third gets nominated too). The second, which is of the book in its context, is a lot grumpier, and basically centres on “people are being wrong, bah, harrumph”. This is not… an uncommon opinion for me to hold, it must be said. I’m trying to stick with the first opinion though, because it’s the fairer of the two.

Being positive, the book is solidly escapist. I powered through it really very quickly, and the writing has the knack of getting out of the way of the story. Jemisin doesn’t bog us down with needless exposition, and she doesn’t tell about her characters when she could show… it’s just a shame that what she shows, I couldn’t care less about. The world, for all that it falls into so many trope traps it is unreal, is at least a not badly executed tropey hole. It has a map, the geography has that ridiculous feeling of “everything is so tiny howwwww” and she could have done better on her geography naming. Actually, her naming conventions could all use some work. I know the idea is that the people with stone magic get given names of rocks. I get it. It’s very cute. It is, however, also stupid. And none of the rocks work as names, nor do they abbreviate to what you shorten them to. It feels crowbarred and awkward. However, these are not unusual problems, and as such they are really easy to ignore. She does some good visual writing, especially when someone is about to explode or be eaten by magic bugs, and I had no trouble seeing what was happening in her world as I read it.

On the other hand, the plot… oh my god the melodrama. So… some spoilers here, but they wouldn’t be a shock to anyone reading the book. Honest. It does the good ol’ ramping up of the stakes, y’know, it’s not just a disaster, it’s a MEGA DISASTER, THOUSANDS OF YEARS, DOOM OF THE SPECIES.

Oh, and by the way, you have to use your rock powers to CATCH THE MOON.

Yeah. That’s where she lost me, to be honest.

Which is why, when she got to the big, super surprise reveal that *whispers* actually, all along, this super duper rock control power shit… it was MAGIC!

I can hear your astounded gasps from over here, in the past, writing this. But seriously, that’s her big reveal. That word is used. I think she thinks up until now she’s made it plausibly scientific (nope) so this would come as a shock, but nah. Especially since it’s a mysterious word used by the mysterious, long-dead civilisations of their world in their mysterious writings and no one knew what it meant until Alabaster figured it out. “Moon” is the other mysterious word. Jemisin takes a moment for her main character not to be able to pronounce it properly, too, which undermines any seriousness that plot point could have had nicely.

See, I’m doing it again. If I treat this book as tropey trash, then catching the moon with your SHOCK magic… well, it’s par for the course. I shouldn’t be surprised. But if I expect something better from it because everyone thinks it’s UH-MAY-ZING, then sure, of course I’m going to be disappointed and sarcastic.

Oh, and the other thing this has in common with its predecessor? They both end incredibly abruptly. Once again, I read into the appendices etc. without realising oh, that was it? It’s quite annoying.

As I say, if I take the book in a vacuum, it’s unobjectionable trope trash. There’s nothing desperately wrong with it, but it’s not doing anything new or interesting either. It just… is. I doubt it’ll end up on the bottom of my Hugo list, because I don’t hate it, but it’ll only be beaten to the bottom because of me getting grumpy with things, not because of any of its own merits. Solid middle, that’s what this is. I will continue to be baffled and annoyed at the people who think this is the height of literary merit, and I will not apologise for that. But this will surprise precisely no one.

Next up: Too Like the Lightning, by Ada Palmer. I know nothing about it, so it could go either way. Which is exactly why I do this read-along thing in the first place. I look forward to finding out.

Current Nebula Award Rankings:

1. All the Birds in the Sky – Charlie Jane Anders
2. Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee
3. Everfair – Nisi Shawl
4. The Obelisk Gate – N. K. Jemisin

Unread: Borderline – Mishell Baker

Current Hugo Award Rankings:

1. Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee
2. All the Birds in the Sky – Charlie Jane Anders
3. The Obelisk Gate – N. K. Jemisin

Unread 1: Too Like the Lightning – Ada Palmer
Unread 2: Death’s End – Cixin Liu
Unread 3: A Closed and Common Orbit– Becky Chambers

You may notice that Ninefox Gambit and All the Birds in the Sky have swapped places between the Nebulas and the Hugos. This is not an error. I love them both, and would be entirely happy at the moment should either win either or both awards, but I come up against a similar issue I had with Uprooted last year. For all that I loved it, I didn’t think it was the better book, and so I ended up ranking it second to Ancillary Mercy, since I thought quality ought to outrank fun. Now that I’m reading two sets of nominations though, I can afford to be a little more nuanced in this. It is my take from these nominations (and past ones) and just the way the Hugos and Nebulas work in general, that the Hugo winner should more be the popular one than necessarily the excellent-but-niche one. And given that the Nebulas are panel-judged… so it seems not unreasonable to put as my Hugo favourite the book I consider amazingly fun and excellent (and pretty damn well-written) and as my Nebula favourite the one I think is the better book, but with the slightly less broad appeal and less… fun-ness. If I honestly had to decide between them which I thought was best, I’d agonise for a couple of hours and then probably come down on the side of All the Birds in the Sky. It pushes some of the right buttons for me and does some things well that a lot of other things completely fail, as well as just being beautifully written and rather different from many things available. Ninefox Gambit is wonderful and stunning, but given the amount of times I wanted to draw parallels to Ancillary, it doesn’t tick the originality box quite as comprehensively. It’s very very close, but that’s the nudge I’d go, if you forced me.

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About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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