Mark Reads ‘The Fifth Season’: Chapter 4

In the fourth chapter of The Fifth Season, I STILL WASN’T READY. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Broken Earth.

Trigger Warning: For compulsory sexuality/sex, references to slavery

Holy shit, another new POV character? YES. Y E S. Oh, that chapter title. THAT CHAPTER TITLE. It’s so fascinating to me that instead of jumping back to Damaya—which is what I expected—Jemisin jumps to what seems to be a whole new character, but one based in the Fulcrum, which is where Damaya was headed after Schaffa picked her up. I still don’t get the timelines here; I think everything is happening simultaneously, and my guess is that at some point, these three characters will converge for reasons?

For now, though, I’m just going along for the ride rather than trying to figure out the big picture. I have a lot more of this book to go through, so! Let’s focus on Syenite, who is “cut and polished,” a reference to how Jemisin will reveal work in the Fulcrum. This is a community made up almost entirely of orogenes, and yet that doesn’t necessarily mean that matters are better for these people. No, there’s still a hierarchical system, one organized by how many rings an orogene has. Here, Jemisin crafts a metaphor about upward mobility, but one that’s always tainted by one’s status as an orogene. It was so damn intriguing to me that Syenite craved more rings, not because it necessarily granted her freedom, but freedoms. Privacy, for example, is something she craves, as those with four rings or less are not allowed their own place. There is no real escape from the Fulcrum, even if orogenes have ten rings, like the unnamed ten-ringer we meet in this chapter. But there are concessions: 

“Five-ringers and above are no longer required to have a partner or Guardian when traveling outside the Fulcrum.” Feldspar sips from her cup of safe, oblivious to Syenite’s shock. “At that point we are judged stable enough in our mastery of orogeny to be granted a modicum of autonomy.”

Unsaid in this (and a passage I’m about to quote) is the Other, and that’s what the orogenes are. It does not matter how much good they do, it does not matter how they act in favor of the Stillness. What matters is what they were born as, and to those who are not orogene, this power is a stain. And thus, you get shit like this:

Fulcrum orogenes—Imperial orogenes, blackjackets, the ones you probably shouldn’t kill, whatever people want to call them—must always be polite and professional. Fulcrum orogenes must project confidence and expertise whenever they are in public. Fulcrum orogenes must never show anger because it makes the stills nervous.

HI, AGAIN, THIS IS AN INCREDIBLY WILD THING TO READ IN 2020. I think you can interpret this as a means of commenting on respectability politics, but it’s also about what behaviors orogenes must inhabit to avoid being harmed or destroyed. They have to present themselves in a perfect manner to make sure the “stills” (WHAT A TERM) don’t lash out at them. It’s a powerful means of demonstrating this power system. Even though the orogenes possess literal powers that are stronger than the stills, they have no isntitutional power. Their privileges—that modicum of automony—is only granted to them if they prove themselves able to keep others safe. 

They’re permanent outsiders, and in this system, the only way to find temporary joys and reliefs is to claw your way up the ring system. Which is where Syenite is, desperate to get a fifth ring so she can have her own apartment, and it’s why she doesn’t refuse Feldspar when she’s given a new assignment.

She has to have a child with the unnamed ten-ringer. 

Again: pulling no punches here. There’s a matter-of-fact way that Jemisin writes about this act, both in the description and in how Syen finds a way to compartmentalize what she’s doing. Well, compartmentalize as best as she can; the final lines of the chapter make it clear just how physically and emotionally taxing this has been. The whole arrangement speaks to SO MANY things, and I’m interested in seeing what other things folks picked up on. There’s an element of compulsory sexuality here, since this act is forced upon these two people without any regard to their own sexual identities; all that matters is procreation. Which is then deeply tied to another real-world nightmare: the concept of blood purity. Actually, I wonder if that’s also Jemisin playing with something you see (uncritically) in a lot of fantasy books, too. UGH I LOVE THAT WE CAN DISSECT THIS IN MULTIPLE WAYS. Cuz there’s also this line:

It’s somewhat flattering to think that despite her feral status, they actually want something of her infused into their breeding lines. Then she wonders why a part of her is trying to find value in degradation.

The feral thing… holy shit. I see potential there for something huge. Even within the orogenes, there’s another hierarchy, and it is based on blood purity and breeding. As pointed out earlier, it’s a thorny issue that orogenes can come from non-orogene people, and thus, Syen is viewed as lesser-than because she wasn’t bred. But Jemisin takes the worldview here and, after giving us the context to understand it, reminds us that a person is the conduit through which it flows. This might be how the world works, but that doesn’t mean the world isn’t deeply, deeply harmful. Syen is doing what she can to survive, and for a moment, she entertains a value that doesn’t truly exist. It’s easy to do, though, isn’t it? Haven’t many of us sought personal value in a deeply violent framework, convincing ourselves that maybe attention or visibility is a good thing, even if in the short-term or long-term, it won’t prove to be? I FEEL LIKE I COULD WRITE AN ENTIRE ESSAY ON JUST THIS SENTENCE ALONE. And it relates so deeply to this part:

With her experience and boost to her reputation, she’ll be that much closer to her fifth ring. That means her own apartment; no more roommates. Better missions, longer leave, more say in her own life. That’s worth it. Earthfire yes, it’s worth it.

This system degrades her. She is trying to find a modicum of autonomy in it.

A question: Why don’t we know the ten-ringer’s name? That… is that an important thing?


  • Who is Syenite??? Who is Feldspar???
  • Are these orogenes speaking???
  • oh is this respectability politics??? mixed in with some other REAL shit???
  • “This whole situation must be terrible for her, just terrible.” AJSJDFJASJASDJDAJDJAD
  • rings = mastery?
  • given her a way out??? what???
  • ahahaha a polite gesture of NOT poisoning someone
  • “Life for the ringed is easy” OOOOOOH THIS IS INTERESTING
  • omg a white child
  • oh my god, “Not if his victim is just another orogene” goodbye, my spirit is gone
  • “And they’ll never control us, not really.” OH SHIT, OH SHIT.
  • “Then she wonders why a part of her is trying to find value in degradation.” alert, alert, my spirit has left the building
  • the meaning of being “civilized,” y’all i am YELLING

Mark Links Stuff

You can now pre-order my second YA novel, Each of Us a Desert, which will be released on September 15, 2020 from Tor Teen!
– Not only that, but my very first pre-order campaign is now live for North American readers! If you submit proof of pre-order, you can get a limited edition print that comes with the book.
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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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