Mark Reads ‘The Obelisk Gate’: Chapter 8

In the eighth chapter of The Obelisk Gate, Essun makes headway in Castrima. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Broken Earth. 

Trigger Warning: For discussion of grief.

Even without giving too many details about the individual people in Castrima, Jemisin does a fantastic job giving the reader a sense for who makes up this comm. She’s more explicit about how people come to be a part of Castrima, like those that Ykka has taken because they’re useful, not because they willingly joined the comm. She has the survival of this place in mind, and that’s how choices are made. It includes how they deal with a comm made up of free orogenes. They simply cannot risk having members of Castrima who are unable to live amongst orogenes who are not part of the (now destroyed) Fulcrum. Again, it’s a means of survival: What if a still attacks an orogene? What if an orogene retaliates? Of course, that means that those who refuse to live with orogenes are… disposed of? That’s the kindest way to put that. Again, survival. How can Ykka let these stills go out into the world knowing that there’s an underground comm full of orogenes?

It’s real fucked up, but within the context of what’s happening, there’s a logic to it. It’s still fucked up, of course, but I can at least understand why it’s happening this way. The world is ending, and much about that world is falling apart, but people’s anti-orogeny bigotry doesn’t disappear with their comms. It’s still a part of them, as made clear by the conversation that Essun overhears. Even though the geode is kept running by orogenes—even though most of these people probably wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for orogenes—they still hate them. 

Hmmm. Wonder where Jemisin got that idea!

I also loved how much humor there was spread throughout this, though I don’t want to detract from how dire and upsetting things are. Y’all, I just… love the bit about all the small dramas that the council staff has to deal with? I wrote this down in the notes, but there’s something beautifully calming about the idea that even here, in a geode community beneath the earth, people are still fundamentally people. Which means that a whole chunk of the comm feels like a Pawnee citizen montage from Parks & Recreation. People are annoying everywhere!!!!! It’s so goddamn funny!!! And I get why it’s comforting to Essun, too. 

At the same time, I wanted to recognize just how beautifully Jemisin writes about grief here, too. Because wrapped up in this very funny moment is memory: Of the time Essun spent on Meov, of the time Essun spent in Tirimo. There’s only a brief touch on grief in this chapter, but it was so powerful to me. When you get to a point where months or years have passed since that trauma, memories can bubble up to the surface. They might be edged in pain, but you can recall what was good about them. Sensations. Moods. Here, Essun values “silly pedantry” because it means there is a chance to luxuriate in choice. They can argue about silly things instead of life-ending things. And so, while these memories are tinged with grief, there’s a joy to them, too. Essun is a character who, at times, feels defined by her grief, but Jemisin adds layers to that grief. As someone living out grief now? It feels… hopeful. Kind. And that shit matters a lot. 

Anyway, now that I’m all teared up, LET’S TALK ABOUT TETTEHEE. Jemisin accomplishes two things with the scene aboveground. Some of it is worldbuilding: What is happening aboveground? What comms are nearby, and what has their fate been? The Season is only getting worse, which makes me very worried about what’s going to happen in this book and the next. What if they don’t stop it? Which… okay, I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. But in the meantime, something happened here. Something horrible. Why the fuck would a comm need to mark their territory like the one does here? The warning is horrifying: bodies impaled on stakes. So, someone knows about Castrima, and they wanted this to be… what? A display of their force? Their violent power? I don’t like this. AT ALL.

Beyond this development, though, Jemisin also delves deeper into some of the secondary characters of Castrima, like Hjarka and Cutter. Like Essun, I am deeply interested in Cutter, an orogene who hid their ability until the Season started. So, someone who did what Essun did but for MUCH MUCH LONGER. That’s… how??? How did they do that??? And what’s interesting, too, is how much this manifests in Cutter’s personality:

Cutter’s much harder to read than Hjarka, too, you notice now. Hjarka is a woman who has never been able to hide the breadth and vigor of what she is, so she doesn’t bother to try. Cutter is a man who’s spent his life concealing the strength of mountains behind a veneer of meekness. Now you know what that looks like from the outside. 

It’s fascinating, too, to see how both of these characters perceive Essun, too. Hjarka is far more challenging towards her, for example, and it’s obvious why Ykka trusts her so much. She’s quite practical, and she doesn’t pull any punches. Like when she openly challenges Essun on being able to use her orogeny without killing other people. And then Essun shows off for them, which I found INCREDIBLY amusing, for the record. I did not, however, see where this was going and how Hjarka basically trapped Essun into being a teacher for the other orogenes? IT’S SO CRAFTY. Was that her intention the whole time???? I mean, she basically goaded Essun into this position by saying that insulting bit about orogenes. 

Which leads us to the final part of this chapter. The idea isn’t necessarily terrible: Essun will help train the other orogenes who live in Castrima. Alabaster, despite being a ten-ringer, certainly can’t do it for multiple reasons. He’s dying, for one, and as we see during his argument with Essun, he’s a shitty teacher. Which we knew!!! That’s not a surprise at all. Let me just vaguely gesture at THE ENTIRETY OF THEIR INTERACTIONS IN THE FIFTH SEASON. He was frustrating. He was vague. He was demanding. He “taught” by doing things—often without asking if Essun was okay with it!!!—and hoped she would just figure it out on her own. Like, I’m thinking of him using that obelisk for the first time, or him utilizing her powers to save himself. He didn’t actually teach her much of anything; she had to figure out a lot of it on her own. There’s a value in that, sure; things that one figures out alone often stick really well. 

But I can’t ignore this context as I read over Alabaster’s argument with Essun about teaching orogenes. He’s such a raging asshole, y’all! It’s certainly part of his rapport with Essun, and I’m sure the pain of his slow, agonizing death by transforming to stone plays a part in that. At the same time, I’m right there with Essun: Alabaster doesn’t get to talk to her like she’s a child. It wasn’t right before, and it’s certainly not all right in the present time. And look what happens when she just up and leaves! (Or at least tries to.) That jolt he sends through Castrima is basically a temper tantrum, okay? And he continues to insult her and assume she isn’t knowledgeable or competent, that she is just an insufferable student, and then… oh lord.

“Because you won’t tell me anything! You expect me to listen to you, but you don’t share, you just demand and proclaim and, and—and I’m not a child! Evil Earth, I wouldn’t even speak to a child this way!”

(There is a traitor part of you that whispers, Except you did. You spoke to Nassun like this. And the loyal part of you snaps back, Because she wouldn’t have understood. She wouldn’t have been safe if you’d been gentler, slower. it was for her own good, and—)

“It’s for your own rusting good,” Alabaster grates.

Stunning. STUNNING. This moment is so layered and painful and cutting. Because we know from Nassun’s chapters that this is true, that Essun was not kind to her daughter as she struggled to teach her orogeny in secret. And then, the very line she uses to justify how she spoke to her daughter is the one Alabaster uses on her. It’s come full circle, and the understanding is complete. He does care about her. he does care about the world. His technique is the same one she used for nearly a decade with Nassun, and in this moment, the two let down their guard. They stop fighting. They see one another more as equals, at least in the sense that each one deserves to be treated with respect and a softness. It doesn’t mean ignoring the truth or pulling punches, but to be kind where kindness can happen. 

That transformation is so damn affectionate, too. I love that Essun takes up the place that Antimony was in, holding up Alabaster with a hand to his back. It reminded me of the affection we saw in The Fifth Season as these two people grew closer. And then he finally just tells her the truth about what happened after Meov.

WHICH I DON’T GET BECAUSE THE CHAPTER ENDS AND THIS IS CRUEL AND I’M SO MAD. Ugh!!!! I need to know!!! Unfair!!!! I really hope this next chapter is another Essun one, because this is UNBEARABLE!


  • I’m in danger, aren’t I?
  • yeah, that first line is already too much.
  • oh, so there are still bigots down here. got it.
  • time stretching out because she lost nassun 🙁 🙁 🙁
  • wow, this is so much more explicit about how Ykka basically… kidnaps new members if they’re deemed useful?
  • “The ones who can say yes tend to be younger.” WHEW.
  • oh
  • oh that is what happens to people who say no
  • ooooh, yes, how DID Cutter stay under the radar for so long?
  • god, I fucking LOVE the way this book interrogates grief and how it so painfully but beautifully renders it
  • I love so deeply that like…. the council people discuss serious affairs and also have to deal with comm members like a montage of Pawnee citizens from Parks & Rec. There’s something deeply comforting about that.
  • I am still unnerved by the stone eaters
  • why does Butter Marble as a name make me laugh
  • oh no, what are they going to find
  • great, I am nervous again!
  • the mounds?
  • the mounds?
  • what the fuck are those!!!!
  • absolutely not!!!!
  • no, no thanks.
  • what is that
  • no
  • a cloth???
  • A BODY?
  • cutter makes a fantastic point. That’s a lot of work. why do that???
  • okay, but if Tettehee is a friendly comm… what if someone took them over?
  • I love how casual essun is with her ability. it so fucking FUNNY
  • yeah I don’t agree with Hjarka’s assessment either.
  • SHE W H A T
  • i am absolutely SCREAMING at Alabaster’s response
  • hahaha of course alabaster is a terrible teacher
  • magic redistribution!!!!
  • oh no, that was alabaster, wasn’t it?
  • WHOA WHAT THE FUCK she is watching him turn to stone????
  • neither was he????
  • the affection here?
  • no
  • no 
  • no!!!!
  • chapter, you can’t end here!!!! I need this!!!!!
  • fuck you this is unfair!!!!!!

Mark Links Stuff

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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