This post is FULL of spoilers. Go read The Obelisk Gate first if you were planning on it, and come back later.
I. Fantasy v SciFi
For the second half of Fifth Season and first half of Obelisk Gate I really enjoyed the tension that this might technically be Science Fiction rather than Fantasy. That’s always a very contentious issue when Fantasy is set in a future far enough out of that we may have crossed Clarke’s Line of “sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I tend to agree with those who say the best way to distinguish Fantasy from SF is via the furniture, and in that case this is certainly Fantasy. But still, the edge-case-exploration part of my mind was very titillated and happy.
So I was a little sad when this finally tipped into full Fantasy for me. That happened when it was revealed that the Earth itself really is a Sentient Being that we’ve enslaved (via coretap) and whose child we’ve taken from it. A member of my book club tried to say “Hey, maybe it still is SF. It could be that a sufficiently advanced AI has taken responsibility for the planet, such as the EarthMinds of various SF series.” I don’t buy it though. It seems implied that the Earth has been sentient since long before humans came around, and that it feels pain and emotions.
On the plus side, holy shit, we are in a war against a freakin’ Elder God that we LIVE ON! And based on the first two books, this really does look like a truly Alien mind. So much so that we and it weren’t even aware of each other’s existence for most of our history, because we’re so different and incomprehensible to each other. It’s still almost impossible to comprehend, and negotiation certainly seems unlikely. Have I mentioned how much I love books with legit Gods in them? I’m always happy to find good Lovecraft unexpectedly in what I’m reading. :)
Also, I love that the tables are somewhat flipped. The Roggas are the exploited minority throughout the first two books, and their enslavement is a major driving force for Essun’s character. Then near the end of Book 2 it turns out that her existence (and the existence of her minority) is dependent upon the enslavement and exploitation of a vast, non-human being. What Now, Punk? :) (and to top it all off, it had it’s child ripped away from it by its enslavers, the same way Essun has had her children ripped away from her. d’oh!)
II. Grimdark v Noblebright
The “grimdark” scene I mentioned in my review is the one where the community is voting on whether or not to expel their Rogga minority to prevent war with the intolerant much-greater force besieging them. Essun destroys the ballot box without counting it, and says that the Roggas stay because human rights are non-negotiable and she’ll kill anyone that opposes her on this, because she can kill every last motherfucker in this com and she will.
This is absolutely fucking awesome, because first of all, that is some BURNING PASSION IDEALISM that even Rorschach would be happy with. Superior force offers us a choice between betraying our ideals or complete annihilation? Take annihilation. Every single fucking time. And take down as many of those bastards with you as you can. It’s probably not the correct answer, but it’s the one that fills me with joy. Never compromise. Even in the face of Armageddon. Not about something this important.
In a noblebright fantasy, this would have been resolved differently. The hero would convince enough of their fellow villagers to stick with their ideals, and they’d unite voluntarily. Or a Rogga would sacrifice themselves in a noble display, reminding everyone how worthy of respect they are. Or a Rogga/Still Romeo & Juliette situation would unify the community. But it would be achieved via good means, that we approve of. Because in noblebright, there is never a conflict between Means and Ends. The Ends never justify the Means, because as long as you uphold pure Means, you will eventually achieve good Ends.
Grimdark doesn’t take that as a given. And so every now and then a character is presented with an End they feel is so important, they say “fuck it” and resort to violent, even “evil” Means. Like threatening to murder everyone in your community, and being ready to carry it out.
I think I like this in my fiction so much specifically because its such a terrible idea IRL. The whole point of fiction is to live out things that are terrible ideas in real life because they usually get you killed, or destroy civil society, or something. Any real-life Rorschach is a murderous psychopathic hobo. The Watchmen Rorschach is the last shining beacon of decency in a world compromised into complete corruption. Or, in Essun’s case, defending her minority, but then going on to wipe out an entire city-state and taking their stuff, not because it’s right but because it’s convenient.
I’m pretty sure Essun can’t live through this trilogy, her crimes are too great at this point. I predict Redemptive Death.
III. Rage v Nihilism
I’ve mentioned before I like Angry Fiction. I loved the absolute simmering rage that underlay every single sentence of The Fifth Season. I would have been OK with more of that, but Obelisk Gate changed up the emotional theme, going with Nihilism instead. Which, for a world in the midst of an apocalypse, works just fine. :) It was well-executed and it drew me in. I mainly note it because I enjoyed it, and because it leads to my one major bone of contention…
IV. Essun v Nassun
IMHO, Jemisin mixed up Essun’s and Nassun’s roles.
I wrote in my spoilery post-Fifth Season post that The Fifth Season guides the reader on a journey to understanding why a person would want to destroy the world. Really desire it, as a moral good. It does that by following Essun. By the end of the novel we are all saying “Yes. Fuck them all. Burn it all down!” (if we’re me). But by the end of Obelisk Gate it’s obvious that Nassun will be the one trying to destroy the world, while Essun will be trying to save it.
To me this feels like it completely negates the point of the first book. Fifth Gate brought us to the realization why the world must be destroyed. Why would the person who took us on that journey now be thrust into the role of its savior? It feels very out of character.
Furthermore, Nassun is set up very nicely for a character arc where she struggles from nihilism into realizing there is something worth saving the world for, and fighting against her mother to preserve some scrap of humanity. That breakthrough of “There is some good in the world, and it is us” would be beautiful, fighting against her mother’s constant (and VERY in-character and relate-able) disgust and hatred of all the evil works wrought by man.
Using Essun as the savior means that a different destroyer has to be built up over the course of Book 2, which is dumb, since we already have Essun! We spent all of Book 1 getting Essun, and we only have maybe half of Book 2 to create a new Destroyer. This leads to Nassun being forced to do randomly evil things without believable motivations. She realizes that the Fulcrum is where her mother learned to break her hand and her response is… to murder everyone inside the Fulcrum? Mass murder feels like an over-reation to a broken hand. Especially since the only people there now are fellow victims.
Also, she just doesn’t have enough life experience to be realistically motivated to destroy the world. Essun had a LIFETIME of abuse, degradation, enslavement, and self-hatred. She’s experienced and/or witnessed horrific atrocities. She killed her own child. She had another child beaten to death by her husband. Nassun is 12 years old. Almost all of it has been with a doting father (who later tries to murder her) and a cold and fearsome mother. This is absolutely believable motivation for adopting Nihilism. It’s not enough for random acts of mass murder. And certainly not enough to become Destroy Of Mankind.
I suspect that Essun will likewise be forced into out-of-character actions in Book 3, to wedge her into the Savior role. Which is a damned shame. I think I’ll still love Book 3, but man, it coulda been so much better if the protagonist and antagonists hadn’t gotten mixed up in Book 2. :(
I like this review, but I am curious about your statements on Grimdark vs Noblebright.
For me the heart of Grimdark was best described by Alasdair Stuart when he said about a Grimdark short story (paraphrasing); you find yourself in a position when you can do the right thing or the thing that means you will survive for another day and they are most definitely not the same thing.
Having a main character with the power to smash everything around them doesn’t seem very Grimdark to me, if only because this genre seems to be more about how little power most people possess to change the system they live in, and the way this lack of power forces them into making truly terrible choices; and ultimately losing the capacity to even realize how horrible these choices actually are.
Your review of The Water Knife got more into the heart of Grimdark for me (actually the reason I read that one).
Like any other genre, it’s as much about the flavor as anything else IMHO, and flavor is something that’s difficult to put into words. The protagonist was very helpless throughout most of the first book, and even though she’s gained a lot of power, that grimdark flavor remains in the story. For me, though, it seems like the important part is “being forced into terrible choices” more than “lack of power.” The lack of power often leads to the being forced part.
Really good grimdark will confront a protagonist with a choice between two very important but conflicting goals. This is most apparent when it’s something like “Don’t betray your lover” vs “Continue to live.” But it doesn’t have to be. It can be between something like “Protect your hated ethnic minority” and “Don’t become a murderous monster.” The key is that both are integral to the character, so in picking one and sacrificing the other, the character is carving out and destroying a piece of their own soul. Willfully. It’s the psychological self-mutilation that I find endlessly fascinating.
In a non-grimdark story, there are ways around this. If you pursue the righteous path, you will be rewarded in the end. In grimdark you will fail, and sometimes that failure is lethal.
It’s also fascinating to watch characters reach the breaking point where they refuse to sink any lower, and observe the consequences of that as well.
Of course this is all just my personal opinion. And this isn’t *all* grimdark is about, there’s a whole pastiche. But I think there are plenty of characters in grimdark stories with a lot of power who, nonetheless, are faced with shitty choices.
Thanks for the reply.
I really enjoy discussing what a genre means to people, so this was great. As was the second post related to Grimdark.
Though that was not quite what I meant by lack of power. In re-reading my comment I can see how this was unclear. I have certainly read Grimdark in which characters were considered powerful by those around them. Despite this, in absolute terms their power was surprisingly limited. You can read medieval Grimdark where a main character is a king, yet being King doesn’t actually mean being able to do whatever you like; between fighting with neighboring kingdoms, power struggles at court and the threat of general rebellion being a king has a lot of limitations and a lot of additional threats.
A character with the power to just burn everything down and walk away unscathed to start over elsewhere doesn’t seem to fit for me.
I considered this when reading your post mainly because I just finished a book where the main character (Fred) was faced with a significant threat to his life from an organization and tried appealing to a far more powerful being who owed him a favor. The more powerful being responded by offering to wipe out the organization and kill every member as repayment. When this happened Fred refused only because he felt guilty at the thought of murder on a large scale, preferring a more dangerous (to himself) plan that realistically had less chance of working. To me, this was noblebright at its core.