Reflection: Paradoxical Relationships in The Obelisk Gate

Some books – for mysterious reasons totally unrelated to my inability to consistently finish reading (or listening to) one book per week – spawn a reflection, in which I share thoughts on the text, related to life, craft, or both. The last such post dropped in April. This week, we’re thinking about the paradox at the root of many relationships.

We will not ruin the major plot points, but, as is always the case, mild spoilers may follow.

Paradoxical Relationships

In The Obelisk Gate, Essun and Nassun have complicated relationships with the people and structures they encounter. Ask yourself: who is the antagonist of The Broken Earth series? Through The Fifth Season and most of The Obelisk Gate, it isn’t clear. Until big revelations toward the end, there are both many, and there are none.

Is Jija a villain? He killed Nassun’s brother and hates her magic. She feels that she cannot be herself around him. At the same time, he genuinely cares for Nassun. He protects her. He goes to great lengths to create the life he believes will be best for her… but we, the readers, know this is because he cannot accept her as she is. Even his apparent kindness is selfish, as he struggles to shove Nassun into a mold that he finds acceptable. For Nassun’s part, she wants to love him. Several times, we see her go out of her way to include Jija when his actions have earned exclusion. She keeps waiting for him to come around, to accept her for who and what she is. She knows fairly quickly that she cannot change, and so she hides her true self. She manipulates to survive. She waits.

Is Schaffa a villain? He maimed both Essun and Nassun. In his role as Guardian, he has killed many orogenes and resigned others to a torturous fate worse than death. He is a hard, cruel man. Even so, when we see him with Nassun in book 2, he is a tender and patient parental figure. Like her father Jija, he protects her, but unlike Jija, he fully embraces Nassun’s orogeny and pushes her to reach her fullest potential. Are his supportive instincts altruistic, or do they serve a greater, sinister purpose? It is both intriguing and terrifying to see Nassun choose to close one eye and fully trust this dangerous man even though she knows how he is, because she needs acceptance.

Conflict (Photo by Alex Green on

Is Alabaster a villain? He’s a stubborn, prickly, rude personality. He literally… you know… destroyed the world. That’s pretty villainous, by most standards, not usually a winning platform. However, in this second book we understand why he destroyed the world: to 1) topple an oppressive empire and, more importantly, 2) end the cycle of apocalyptic events which has, to this point, occurred every few centuries for all known history.

On a more micro level, in The Fifth Season, we often see Alabaster’s arrogance and disdain. His mentoring style with Syenite borders on emotional abuse. And yet… Syenite/Essun loves him. He will go to hell and back for her, and she for him. When she finally grasps the truths about magic he would barely deign to share with her earlier, she finds herself using some of the same dismissive words and tones he used with her when she needs to share this knowledge with others. When we see her stand in his shoes, we understand him, and that understanding transforms all his previous actions.

Writing Complex Characters

This series is an excellent model for presenting complex relationships between characters – even characters in conflict with one another – with nuance and sympathy. After all, aren’t we most likely to be in conflict with those closest to us? Do we truly understand our own motives, or do we react and justify? When the people we care about behave badly, do we see their injustice for what it is, or do we excuse them? In real life, people do all of these things. Is messy. It is authentic.

Don’t be afraid to write messy, authentic characters.

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