The Obelisk Gate, the second in The Broken Earth series, is a bit slower paced than The Fifth Season, but once I got into the pace, and focused on the characters, I couldn't put it down. It took me about two weeks to get through the first 80 pages or so, and then two days to get through the other 300. The Obelisk Gate moves from the backstory leading up to the rift of The Fifth Season, and focuses on the Season which has just begun. The Fifth Season, or "Season" with a capital "S" is a season of sudden catastrophic change and death, but this may be the first one caused on purpose. Everyone is beginning to realize that this Season will not be a few years, in fact it may not end for thousands of years, so the question becomes, why did Alabaster do it? Why did he rip a hole through the center of the continent? Jemisin slowly reveals those answers, the players, their underlying conflict and more about orogeny throughout the novel.
With the slower pace, Jemisin has the time to address timeless issues, like "what is love?". As we follow Nassun, we learn that her mother Essun has broken her hand, just as Essun's hand was broken when she was younger; both done out of "love." Jemisin comes back to this idea again and again. Nassun wants to help Schaffa, to keep him from hurting, but he refuses. She thinks to herself, "If she hurts him because she loves him, is that still hurt? If she hurts him a lot now so that he will hurt less later, does that make her a terrible person?" It is only her memory of her mother breaking her hand and saying "If you can control yourself through pain, I know you're safe" that turns her away from the path of force.
Nassun, Essun, and Schaffa all want to be better people, they all want to NOT hurt other people, but Jemisin questions whether that is always possible. Essun kills someone because they were trying to harm a child. Will her own mental traumas allow her to choose a kind path? When her community votes on who gets to stay or leave, Essun uses the threat of violence to get her way, telling them "no part of this comm gets to decide that any other part of this comm is expendable. No voting on who gets to be people." That seems like a worthy goal, but was this the only way to get there? Jemisin certainly doesn't answer that question for the reader, but leaves it up to us to decide.
Besides all that deep philosophical/psychological stuff, the changes wrought by a Season biologically are also amazingly developed. How do animals fail, survive, and some even thrive when the environment changes so drastically in so short a time? How do humans adjust their lives and communities, enforcing their own natural selection.
In other words, The Obelisk Gate won the Hugo Award, not necessarily because of the sci-fi future Jemisin has envisioned for us, but because like all great sci-fi, she has focused on what that future means for humans, in ways big and small. Altogether a fascinating and multi-layered read.