Stone stories: N K Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate

gorgeous colours and intricate work
gorgeous colours and intricate work

When Terry Pratchett wanted to explore how trolls might name themselves, he used mineralogy. Jade was one of the first Pratchett trolls to have a name. It was curiously dignifying as well as amusingly paradoxical (how could a lump of rock have a name, ho ho ho). Pratchett continued to dignify his troll characters rather than just generating cheap laughs, because naming confers identity as well as personality: Bauxite, Beryl, Mica, Flint and the greatest of all, Mr Shine: him Diamond.

In N K Jemisin’s The Fifth Season (2015) [update: which won the 2016 Hugo Award for Best Novel] there was a similar geological component in the storytelling that produces dignity rather than jokes. On completing their first phase of training orogenes name themselves for precious and ornamental stones: Alabaster, and Syenite. Their job is to sense and work with the movements of the earth, to quell earthquakes, shape landscapes, create islands and bury cities. Because of their phenomenal destructive capabilities they are hated and feared by people without that power. In that excellent novel we also met stone-eaters, creatures who move through earth and rock, and eat stone, even stone that was once human. When the Fifth Season begins – a period of violent climatic change brought about by catastrophic eruptions and earthquakes – Essun, an orogene who is trying to find her lost daughter, meets Hoa. She assumes by his name that he is the lost small boy he looks like, although the reader has seen him emerge from a stone nodule. But Hoa is not a mineral name.

In The Obelisk Gate, as Essun struggles to survive after the apocalypse of The Fifth Season, she encounters other stone-eaters. They attach themselves to orogenes, as disconcerting guardians and bodyguards. They exude danger and power in a way that Pratchett’s trolls could not, though Hoa, for one, does have a sense of humour. Essun’s names for them are not particularly beautiful, or respectful: Ruby Hair, Butter Marble, Ugly Dress, Toothshine, Grey Man. Hoa has different names for them, and Essun does call the sternly imposing Antimony by her name for good reason. But these sloppy nick-names reflect Essun’s state of mind when she meets them: usually exhausted, and enraged at how little she understands of what is going on in her community, and in the world, now that everything is made different.

Perhaps it’s the gravity of the situation in The Obelisk Gate that makes the stone-eaters so grim, and so watchful, assembling silently in the plot with a sense of simmering excitement. (Is it food? More of their kind?) The earth has moved in several places, and Essun has learned to summon the obelisks, the gigantic hovering mineral rhomboids in the sky that magnify and amplify her mental earth-moving powers. Alabaster is trying to teach her how to work with them, but he is a terrible teacher, impatient and elliptical, and he is weakening because he is turning into stone. The other orogenes in the underground community of Castrima where Essun is living are only concerned with keeping the people safe and fed, and keeping the life support systems running. But on the surface, where ashfall is preventing crops from growing and killing the trees, other people are coming to find Castrima, and they are not interested in sharing.

The Obelisk Gate continues to develop Jemisin’s rich and complicated world. There is so much that the reader doesn’t and can’t know, yet the pace of the events drags us past unanswered questions. It’s like riding a white-water raft through plot points and characters. Essun spends the entire novel in Castrima, keeping her community alive, but what she doesn’t know is that several other characters are struggling to survive elsewhere on the continent, and she needs most desperately to find them before truly terrible things happen. Really terrible things happen throughout the novel, at the human scale, but Essun’s focus is planetary now, and the reader’s empathy is switched rapidly between small children and whole land masses.

Jemisin’s handling of several strands of narration simultaneously is expert, occasionally with deliberate tangles. As she did in The Fifth Season, in The Obelisk Gate she uses a challenging second-person narration to make us not quite sure who ‘you’ is, and who is saying ‘you’. The multiple narratives tease out the major new development in this novel, a new thing that orogenes can do, which brings magic into the plot, and the series. I was unsure how the integration of sf and fantasy would work, but because Jemisin describes the magical elements in grounded scientific terms, it works for me. What the orogenes do is of course totally fantastical, but by clothing its functionality in words from biology and geology, Jemisin cuts off any possibility of elves and unicorns. We only have the stone angels to contend with instead.

N K Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate (2016, Orbit Books) ISBN 978-0-356-50836-8, £8.99

The language of the invaded in Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake

wake cover_illustrationThis is the strangest and most powerful novel I’ve read in a long time. The strangeness and power come from its eerie, invented, ghost of early English, positioned some way between the impenetrableness of Anglo-Saxon and the Englishes more familiar to the eye from the medieval period. Even though this is completely inauthentic, because Paul Kingsnorth made it up, the language creates authenticity in telling the story because it is completely separate from modern usage, modern thinking, modern culture and ideas. It uses the only letters that existed in 1066, and only those words that could have existed at that time as well. He doesn’t get it quite right all the time. Occasionally he uses a very modern syntax, something like ‘I don’t need this right now’, that jumps into the eleventh century with a clumsy splash, but most of the time this language experiment works perfectly.

It also slows you down. I’m a speedy reader; I hop and slide over lines catching the gist and drift without paying proper attention to every word. I found reading The Wake hard work at first, because I was forced to look at every word if I was to understand. The vocabulary is small, but my goodness it’s important because each word can alter meaning drastically if you don’t pay it proper attention.

The whole point of inventing a language that might have existed in 1066 is that the invasion of England by the Normans and their takeover of the country was a catastrophe for English culture. The Wake tells how the Norman Yoke arrived in the voices of those who were crushed under their new foreign overlords, who were demanding gold and building freakishly tall castles to keep an eye on the population who resisted the crushing.

illustration of Buccmaster borrowed from The Guardian
illustration of Buccmaster borrowed from The Guardian

Buccmaster of Holland is a Fenland farmer whose sons have disappeared fighting for Harold at Sanlac (Hastings to you and me), and his wife and farm have been burned because he would not pay gold to the ‘frenc’. He turns outlaw, collecting some men (and a boy) on the way, and manages to kill (‘cwell’) a few Normans over several years of hand-to mouth banditry. His crisis comes when he encounters Bishop Turold on his way to negotiate with Hereweard, the ‘grene man’ in the Fens who is leading the guerrilla resistance. Buccmaster is a wayward, lying, dark, merciless creation, and has a terrifying connection with Weland Smith and the old gods, who come to him in visions to drive him further along his way as the ‘ceosan one’.

Reading Kingsnorth’s early English is a little like reading a language you once knew and have almost forgotten. It becomes familiar, and obvious, quite quickly, and thinking of ‘heofen’ as the word for ‘sky’ soon seems perfectly natural. The echoes in the words Kingsnorth chooses make the subliminal links across the borderline between the English we know and this English that might once have been. ‘Cilde’ can mean a child, or a youth, or a man (think ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came’), and this matters, since young Tofe, the half-Danish boy who travels with Buccmaster and Grimcell the former cottar, is the cilde with the swine, and he grows into a man during the novel’s course.

‘frogs saes this cilde tofe then and he is laughan frogs he saes locan up at me. He is walcan along with us as we is goan through the holt we is talcan he is lystnan and callan and ciccan his swine to mof them before him.’

The boy laughs and listens as they walk through the wood and talk about the French, and he kicks his pigs to get them moving: it’s perfectly obvious, really.

Paul Kingsnorth in the holt (credit: Kenneth O'Halloran for the New York Times)
Paul Kingsnorth in the holt (credit: Kenneth O’Halloran for the New York Times)

It’s also hypnotic and grim. This is a simple and unprotected society now being brutalised by murder, rape and horse-riding ‘cnights’ who have faces of ‘style’ and shaved heads: they are abominations compared to the joyful celebratory native English life we see on ‘litha’s day’, a very much needed part of the novel that gives relief for characters and readers. Buccmaster’s secret hidden past fuels his murderous and desperate flight from the frenc, but this aspect of the novel is another modern intrusion. Kingsnorth gives Buccmaster modern sensibilities about something he’s done that simply seem improbable for a man of his era and beliefs. I’m dodging spoilers here, so all I can safely say is that weighting his actions with anachronistic moral judgements doesn’t work for me.

But in this large and solid novel, lumbering to a gallop and a crashing, explosive ending, none of that pettifogging detail matters. This is an important novel in the very specialist niche of stories written in invented languages. Riddley Walker (1980) by Russell Hoban is the classic example, and The Wake shares its power. It’s a dark romance without romanticism, where the knights on horseback are a brutal, colonising enemy of traditional peasant life. They make a statement about might and right in war and peace that we haven’t seen since T H White’s The Once and Future King.

UPDATE! The Wake won the inaugural Book of the Year award from the British bookselling trade magazine, The Bookseller, on 11 May 2015.

Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake (2014, Unbound) ISBN 9781908717863, £16.99