Mark Reads ‘The Obelisk Gate’: Chapter 16

In the sixteenth chapter of The Obelisk Gate, Essun learns new stakes. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Broken Earth. 

So, that opening? That’s… that’s very interesting. I still want to know the context of the narrative framing device. Why is Hoa telling her the story and why this way? I WILL KEEP ASKING THIS UNTIL I KNOW OR FIGURE IT ALL OUT.

Anyway, so… hi. This chapter. It’s a lot. It’s gorgeous and heartbreaking and complicated. IT’S SO COMPLICATED. Because up to this point, we’ve been given all the information that we need to understand both Essun and Ykka, even if we definitely know more from Essun’s perspective. God, I love it when you finally come to understand why something happened earlier in a story, and this chapter gives us that. Now I know why Jemisin made sure to include Ykka’s backstory as she did, why Castrima is contructed as it is, WHY ALL OF THIS IS IMPORTANT. Because Ykka has hope where Essun has little to none of it, and the text makes it clear why that is. 

This, of course, does not make things easier for us, but such is The Obelisk Gate, a book that constantly challenges the reader and their assumptions. So, let’s start with Hoa, who is now “reborn” in a sense, and he’s returned to his original form, the form that Essun saw as Syenite all those years ago above Allia. I love that we finally get a better sense of the timeline, that Hoa was put in that obelisk on purpose and that he was freed (I’m assuming) when Alabaster opened the Rift. He sought out Essun in Tirimo, and he assumed the form of a young boy because… well, shit. I feel like that’s obvious, right? She’d just lost her son, who was the second child she’d lost, and Hoa thought that appearing as a young boy would soften Essun to him. 

Within this is a powerful examination of what it means to be human. Hoa was once, as were all the stone eaters. But do they consider themselves that now? Some certainly do, but not all of them, and that’s the crux of this huge conflict. It’s not just stills versus orogenes, nor is it everyone versus Evil Earth. There’s that dreaded third option: the stone eaters against the humans. I loved it, then, that Hoa declared himself a human because Essun considered herself a human. He used her as a barometer to measure himself, and there’s something so uniquely incredible about that, especially since stills officially and socially do not consider orogenes to be human. 

And wrapped up in all of this is… I don’t know what to call it. I know that from his own words, Hoa sees Essun as a means to an end… sort of? But I don’t think that’s the only thing here. After reading this chapter, there’s a sense that he might actually care about Essun as a person. He’s dedicated to her—outright, that is, since he literally says he doesn’t want to let the other stone eaters kill her or use her. That doesn’t mean he won’t use her himself, but I don’t think I’m imagining that something else is blooming here. 

And maybe that’s also my reading of his answer to Essun’s question. She wanted to know why he was here, and he says:

He is silent for a moment. Then: “You asked if I was all right.”

It is such a simple thing, but maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s all it took. Essun offered up interest, maybe a little sympathy, and Hoa thought: This is the one. This is the one who is different from all the others.

It’s interesting, then, to see how the story moves from Hoa’s answer to the next portion of the story, which is Essun’s confrontation with Ykka. Her conversation with Hoa awakes the “mothering instinct” in her, and her concern switches to something new: What’s going to happen now that the grey man has made his offer? What will life be like in Castrima now that this horrible conflict has reared its head? This is where the core of the disagreement with Ykka comes about. For Essun, cynicism is natural. Not just natural, but a survival technique. She grew up in a world where her family rejected her; where she was harmed horrifically for being an orogene; where she was functionally enslaved by the Fulcrum in order to be allowed to live; where that same targeting influenced her life in horrific ways, not the least of which was everything that happened in Allia; Meov. That’s it. Just all of Meov. And then Tirimo, and Uche, and this whole terrifying, wretched journey to find her surviving daughter. Why on Evil Earth would Essun ever trust stills again? Why would she assume the best of them, when that act could get her and other orogenes killed?

Grey Man has now introduced doubt into Castrima just by offering a new home. Nevermind that I don’t believe that anyone will be allowed to survive; my guess is that EVERYONE in Castrima will be killed off. That’s beside the point. As we come to see, his appearance and offer has already started the unraveling. Why else is Ykka having these meetings? Trying to convince others? She knows that this threat is real. It’s just that she approaches it differently. Even after Essun gets Hoa to tell her the truth, Ykka doesn’t give up on her sense of hope. And what Hoa has to say—and what he theorizes—is horrifying! The stone eaters most likely want to kill Essun so that the Obelisk Gate is never opened. That way, the Moon is never returned, the Season lasts forever, and the world will belong to those who can survive any Season: stone eaters. Orogenes would be wiped out. It’s that what the stone eaters want? To never worry about the only things that can kill them?

And yet, Ykka still holds. I loved this bit: 

Ykka looks up at you. “Castrima isn’t wherever you came from.”

It’s not. She’s right! Ykka has a different history, one where she wasn’t persecuted for being an orogene like Essun was, and she also lived without the Fulcrum. Her view on community is naturally very different! Again, she has hope. Like this statement:

She stops, and a muscle in her jaw flexes once or twice. “Stills learned to hate us. They can learn differently.”

But does Essun believe that? Or believe that it’s possible? Right now… no. She doesn’t. And for good reason. So what’s the solution? Anticipate that the stills will turn on the orogenes? Create an alliance and fight back against Grey Man and the others? I don’t have an answer, and this chapter doesn’t give us one, either. It’s not supposed to, though. Jemisin has designed this so that we understand where each of these characters come from, and that will help us readers later as the two of them decide what to do about the fate of Castrima, and, for that matter, the fate of orogenes as a whole. 

I also want to have hope, but lord, I’m scared.


  • oh no, WHAT old friend, IS THIS GOING TO RUIN ME
  • (again)
  • of course it is. it’s hoa. I’m already ruined.
  • oh okay, that opening??? that is FASCINATING.
  • not cracks but veins????
  • wait how can he be OLDER what the FUCK
  • the lie????
  • oh my god, stone eaters can be trapped in obelisks!!!!
  • clean???? that probably doesn’t mean what I think it does
  • oh my god, the flashback to Hoa washing himself HELP ME
  • “I only did that for you.” great, my heart’s been stomped on again
  • what???? it was time?? TIME FOR WHAT????
  • I love essun’s name for the stone eaters, LMAO
  • I’m certainly not
  • oh, right!!! he can’t walk anymore
  • “you’re not my type” WELL, SHIT
  • oh
  • oh 
  • there it is
  • oh shit, of COURSE the stone eaters would feel envy
  • oh, fuck ME, that’s what the gray man wants????
  • “Stills learned to hate us. They can learn differently.” I YELPED SO LOUD, HOLY SHIT.
  • this is so complicated!!!! I get why both women feel as they do!!!!

Mark Links Stuff

You can now pre-order my second YA novel, Each of Us a Desert, which will be released on September 15, 2020 from Tor Teen!
– Not only that, but my very first pre-order campaign is now live for North American readers! If you submit proof of pre-order, you can get a limited edition print that comes with the book.
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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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