Summary: loved The Fifth Season, disappointed with Obelisk Gate.

When I first read The Fifth Season, I was blown away and immediately started looking forward to the sequel. The sequel didn’t live up to my hopes and expectations at all.

The story takes place on a planet of extreme tectonic and volcanic activity. “The fifth season” of the title is a natural climate-related disaster on a continental or planetary scale. These happen frequently enough (seven within the last 2500 years of recorded history) that there is need for a term like this, and much of civilization revolves around storing and handing down knowledge about how to survive a Season. The book starts at the cusp of a Season:

Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we?

Some people on this planet have magical powers of a special kind (called orogeny) that allow them to shift energy around so as to quell micro-quakes and soothe magma bubbles before they can cause a catastrophe. Untrained, orogenes are immensely dangerous. Trained, they are essential for society’s survival. So the lucky ones are sent to the imperial capital for training; the unlucky ones are lynched and killed.

There are three threads to the story. One continues from where the book took off and describes the beginning of the Season, from the point of view of a “closet” orogene whose neighbours don’t know she is one. The second describes a newly-discovered orogene child’s journey to the capital and her training there. The third shows what life can be like for a fully-trained adult orogene.

I liked this way to tell this story. It’s a great way to explain, for example, why an orogene would behave in a certain way in a certain situation (by telling us about their training) without having to explicitly explain it. And in the end the threads come together naturally and smoothly.

Two things made this book stand out. One was the world, with its tectonic instability and societal focus on surviving it, and its special kind of magic, so suited to this world. The other was the complex emotional tone: poetic, yet bleak and angry, and always torn between hope and hopelessness. Orogenes are immensely powerful, and so needed by the world, yet feared and shunned. The people on this planet have more power over it than we do here, and yet they are more likely to be killed by a disaster caused by the planet.

Obelisk Gate takes up the story right where the first book stopped. I was hoping that the parts I liked best would still be there, that the book would have a similar tone and structure, but it didn’t. And it adds some parts that I frankly quite disliked.

The unique kind of magic turns out to be just a special case or sub-form of more normal, general-purpose magic, which in one turn of the page makes it ordinary instead of unique.

The story-telling in the second book is bog-standard. There are two parallel threads for two main characters. Unlike the first book, the threads’ relationship to each other is both obvious and much weaker: I don’t think they ever actually affect each other, that’s probably left for the third book.

The writing adds detail but loses depth and energy. The first book covered decades; the events in the second book span a year or two – and yet somehow nothing much happens. There is more immediate action, but less substance and tension.

This book also has the abominable habit of letting characters hide essential information for no good reason. Person A knows something, and knows that person B needs this information. Person B likewise knows that the person A knows this thing, and that person B really needs this. And yet A never tells, and B never asks – for no apparent reason at all – until I’m ready to scream at them. Why?! And when they finally decide to talk, we get an info dump – instead of the natural, organic flow that we had the first book.

The first book was among the best I’ve ever read. And while I’m complaining about the second one, it was still better than most – and I am looking forward to reading the third one.

Here’s an interesting review with plenty of spoilers.