In the fourth chapter of The Obelisk Gate, Essun must contend with what it means to stay. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Obelisk Gate.
Trigger Warning: For body horror/gore, death, ableism.
Hi, WHAT THE FUCK. What the fuck!!! Who allowed this??? Why must this hurt me so???
So, let me start out by saying that I love how willing Jemisin is to make her protagonists feel deeply, deeply uncomfortable. Now I know why this chapter is titled as such! Because Essun is challenged, and the challenge she receives is deeply fair for her. But I’m also interested in it because of where it happens: the beginning of this book. I am certain that a thousand essays about the structure of The Fifth Season exist, and I will probably one day add to that, as I think I’ll be forever impressed with what Jemisin pulled off. I have no idea what the greater structure is for The Obelisk Gate (aside from admitting that the Nassun and Schaffa chapters shoved me off a cliff, so literally anything is possible at this point), but Jemisin’s choice here is striking.
She has given Essun a choice: keep moving (amidst the end of the world), or stay.
And that’s a bold fucking thing to open a book with. One of these stories has momentum built into it: Essun moves forward. She goes out into the world, she tracks down her murderous husband, and she tries to reunite with her daughter. The other seems, on the surface, much more static: Essun stays put. She remains in Castrima, she tries to build a life there, and she earns her keep. In terms of traditional narrative arcs, it seemed that one of these was the more obvious choice. Somehow, Essun would leave, and the story would propel forward in that direction.
Yet my expectations for the story here have little to do with what actually happens, and I love the subversion of that expectation! Essun doesn’t just have a difficult choice ahead of her; Lerna’s later point in this chapter is that both choices end the same way. The world is ending, remember? So, will Essun die looking for her daughter? And even if she succeeds in finding her, won’t she probably die in the thousand-century winter that will come to pass?
Look, I’m jumping ahead of myself, because we gotta deal with boilbugs even though I don’t WANT to because I HATE THEM and HOW DOES A PERSON THINK OF SUCH A WAKING NIGHTMARE. I also want to give them some more thought: Why did we see this? Why was this a necessary part of the story?
I have two different readings of this scene. I think on visceral, literal level, it’s meant to communicate the growing chaos of the world outside of Castrima. We’ve heard so much about the Seasons, and there were casual details revealed across The Fifth Season about some of those that have come to pass. Essun’s travel away from Tirimo has shown us the ramifications of Alabaster’s actions. Yumenes is probably entirely gone. Many comms were swallowed or burned or collapsed or are lost. By the time Tonkee joined her, we were seeing more and more how folks survived. Yet what sort of changes to the environment will this Season bring to the Stillness? What creatures will thrive in the new weather? In a weird way, I can see boilbugs having a field day, which is terrifying, terrifying thought. They normally feed on carrion, right? Well, look at their new behaviors, y’all. How many other species will adapt to these changes? How many will become dangerous to humans when they previously weren’t?
I’m not going to quote the details of what happened to Terteis. I initially assumed he’d just been burned by a vent in the earth, but nah. No, Jemisin had to go and craft a creature from the depths of my nightmare. Like… I have a thing with creatures that can burrow in skin. Or have a long proboscis. OR CONTAIN BOILING WATER WITHIN THEIR CARAPACE. And these creatures aren’t evil;they’re just trying to feed! Hell, I can even admit that they seem a bit gorgeous, too. Like… academically. From an extreme, fictional distance. THAT’S IT. I never want to meet one. GLAD THEY AREN’T REAL.
(They’re… not real. Right? Oh god, please don’t tell me they’re based on something real in our world. PLEASE DO NOT.)
So, I find this interesting on a worldbuilding level. Clearly, these bugs can thrive in certain parts of the Stillness, and now, in the wake of a new Season, they’ve changed, going after living flesh rather than feeding on carrion. That communicates a whole lot about the Stillness and the context of the Season, but I also see an entirely different take within this story. It’s much more character-centric. First of all, there’s the mystery of the stone-eaters, and while I can’t figure out why, I know it’s significant that Hoa wasn’t initially there. I don’t have a guess, though. Did he know that Alabaster would use his orogeny and reveal that he did so at great cost? Was this the price he paid for creating the Rift? Probably, but I’m still unable to link this all together. Why did Hoa eventually show up? He only does when Essun attempts to remove one of the boilbugs. Was he only interested in what she could do? Is he invested in her orogeny for some reason we aren’t aware of? And what the fuck did Ykka do with that “channeling-away” thing??? I got the sense that wasn’t something Essun was familiar with outside of an obelisk. WHAT IS HAPPENING HERE.
Yet of everything that happened here, I was blown away by Essun being challenged by both Lerna and, to a lesser degree, by Ykka. So yes, there’s worldbuilding here, but it’s attached to the characters. After Essun successfully removes the boilbugs from Terteis, she has a deeply uncomfortable conversation with Lerna. Look, I saw Essun’s act as a success, but look what she learns in the wake of it. I do wonder how disabled people fare in general in the Stillness, because here, in Castrima, it’s clear that being able-bodied is a necessity, and it is described to us in direct, pragmatic cruelty:
The man might survive it. But this is a Season, and every comm-dweller must earn their shelter from the ash and cold. Few comms have use for a legless Hunter, and this comm is already supporting one burned invalid.
And thus, Terteis becomes, in terms of the value of a person in Castrima, useless. It’s horrifying. It’s what is here, and so, Essun’s act isn’t heroic. It probably wasn’t even necessary in this context, which is something we’ll loop back on with Ykka. But the truth is that Essun isn’t used to making decisions quite like this. She is a pragmatic, cynical person. Certainly! What I mean is that she historically hasn’t had to make decisions with a comm in mind. She was an outsider as a child; she was an obedient orogene at the Fulcrum; she was out of place in Meov, even though she tried to be a part of that comm. This is new to her, and it’s why this pissed of Lerna so much. Is she a part of Castrima? And if she is, is she going to do what she did with Tirimo?
YEAH, I GASPED WHEN LERNA ASKED THAT. And it’s fair, isn’t it? He had to abandon his home because of what she did. He experienced so much trauma since then! So, is that just going to repeat all over again? Or will she commit to being here and contributing and not burning it all to the ground?
Still, there’s another layer to the discomfort. At times, I felt real weird about how Lerna spoke to Essun. I get that he is angry, and I think his anger is fairly justified. But dropping all those slurs? Expecting Essun and Alabaster to solve things for everyone else? In this is an unspoken assumption: That even though Lerna is far more accepting and friendly, he still kinda believes that orogenes work for stills, even if it’s in an abstract way. Right? Or at least that felt like an undercurrent to what happens here. At the same time: stills are LITERALLY useless here! So he’s also appealing to the only two humans he knows who have an ability to do something.
Ugh, it’s all so layered! Which is a fantastic thing to experience as a reader. I can feel empathy for a character one moment, and then be furious with them a moment later. That’s especially the case with Essun, and I love that this chapter forces her to be introspective in a way she wasn’t ready for. And it happens again at the end, when she realizes she also messed up Ykka’s plans:
Belatedly you realize: By killing the boilbugs, you made this a harder choice for her. Before, she could have ordered the Hunter killed as a mercy, and the bugs would have been at fault. Now it’s pragmatism, comm policy. That’s on her.
If Essun is going to stay, she has to commit to it. By the end of this chapter, I had to re-think my assumption that Essun staying was the more static of the two possible story paths. If Essun stays, she will have to fundamentally change how she behaves in a significant way, something she resisted in Meov. That’s not a static plot at all.
This chapter ends on a nice note, too. I really loved Essun and Ykka standing there, not speaking, getting high off mellow, sliding deep into the moment. It’s a comforting respite, on the one hand. It’s a quiet acknowledgment of the horrors of this place and what had transpired. There’s an air of respect to it all, however slight that might be.
I want to see more of the two of them, y’all. I love when a book makes you feel that.
- Well, that chapter title is ominous
- I’m sorry WHAT kind of meat
- That line about giving up on Nassun… I hurt.
- Screaming???? Why???
- Pity??? Oh I don’t like this
- It’s so interesting to compare the reaction of the residents of Catarina with those of Meov. Essun is used to being an insider.
- Oh, I am so scared to find out what happened to this man
- What the fuck is all this?
- WHY DIDN’T HOA FOLLOW
- I AM SO NERVOUS
- Crawling???? What was crawling??? THIS IS A NIGHTMARE
- I dislike all of this on a spiritual level. But also… wow, never really thought about there being bugs/insects in the Stillness? What kind of life survives here?
- ABSOLUTELY NOT
- N O P E
- HATE THIS BEETLE THING. HATE IT.
- Oh. “Fulcrum indifference.” OH.
- Holy shit, Alabaster
- Wait Hoa showed up!!!!
- What did Ykka just do???
- Okay, what happened to Alabaster’s orogeny???
- What the fuck, I still don’t know why Antimony is EATING Alabaster.
- Boil-bugs. Great. A new thing for me to be utterly terrified of.
- Oh, wow, this got so uncomfortable so fast
- I get Lerna’s anger! I do!
- This assertion that she’s part of this comm… WHEW.
- HEY maybe don’t give someone a slur for a name
- This whole conversation is so brutally uncomfortable!!!!!
- It’s so fascinating to me that Essun still manages to define her worth as a person based on what the Fulcrum told her. She still hasn’t shaken that way of thinking off her
- Oh no, Essun made this WORSE for Ykka
- THE FUCKING ENDING OF THIS, oh my god????
- Five tablets??? Ugh what do all the missing tablets SAY
Mark Links Stuff
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