Mark Reads ‘The Broken Earth’: Chapter 19 / Interlude

In the nineteenth chapter of The Fifth Season, MY EMOTIONS. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Broken Earth. 

Trigger Warning: For brief mention of slavery

Syenite may struggle with the definition of her own humanity, but I think this entire chapter is incontrovertible evidence that orogenes are humans. What unfolds here is so deeply emotional, y’all, that even though there are no huge plot twists, the chapter still felt immense to me. How do these people define themselves under a system that defines their worth on what they are forced to offer others? And what happens when Syenite is finally exposed to people who appear to be, in every way, free of that very system?

It’s understandable to me that Syenite is so out of place here. The language barrier is one part, of course, but it goes so much deeper than that. It’s not just being stuck on an island, Allia in the far distance, destroyed by a volcano. (A volcano caused by the obelisk, for that matter.) No, what truly cuts deep is how much Meov forces an internal reflection in Syen. Yes, Alabaster does question her directly about the Fulcrum and her feelings on it, but so much of what we learn of Syen’s emotional struggle is an internal monologue. She’s in an environment that is completely unreal to her. There’s no Fulcrum. There are no Guardians. There is no need for her to hide that she’s an orogene because the people of Meov make orogenes their leaders. 

It’s spelled out rather succinctly in this line:

Not that she hadn’t known it before: that she is a slave, that all roggas are slaves, that the security and sense of her self-worth the Fulcrum offers is wrapped in the chain of her right to live, and even the right to control her own body. It’s one thing to know this, to admit it to herself, but it’s the sort of truth that none of them use against each other—not even to make a point—because doing so is cruel and unnecessary. This is why she hates Alabaster: not because he is more powerful, not even because he is crazy, but because he refuses to allow her any of the polite fictions and unspoken truths that have kept her comfortable, and safe, for years.

The polite fictions. Damn. That’s such a fantastic way to describe this all. Alabaster doesn’t give a shit about temporary comfort because it’s all so uncomfortable. So what does Meov do to Syen, then, when the whole world seems to fly in the face of her polite fictions? It’s almost like the island itself is a foil: a character that exists to exacerbate the flaws in an orogene raised in the Fulcrum. But you could also say the same for Innon, the leader of Meov, who gets under Syen’s skin immediately. Initially, I assumed it was because he was an orogene raised entirely without the Fulcrum. Was she jealous of him? Did she resent his freedom and the ease in which he wore it? Did she see him as “ridiculous, loud, and vulgar” because he was those things or because she was brainwashed to believe that orogenes were supposed to behave in a specific manner? There are slight similarities between Alabaster and Innon, or at least I thought there were more of them. I’ve come around on that one since finishing the chapter, so it wasn’t just confidence that irked Syen so much. 

It’s a combination of a whole lot of things, and then it’s made worse because she’s attracted to him. Nothing like being attracted to someone you despise! And while there’s a part of me that loves that trope ANYWAY, I appreciated the direction that Jemisin took this. That little argument that Syen and Alabaster have over Innon was deeply revealing. It is the first moment in which the reader has seen Alabaster express desire, something he’s never expressed while having sex with Syenite. And while that also bewilders Syen to an extent, I also think it’s fascinating that, despite her dislike of Alabaster, she sees him as a much more complicated person than she had before. She didn’t have to go track him down after he stormed away, but she felt he deserved “some kind of answer.” 

Why? If she truly hated him, why give him the dignity of any sort of answer? Well, I don’t think she actually hates him, and what we see in this chapter is remarkably sentimental and intimate. It’s not lost on me that she loudly proclaims that orogenes are not human, fully aware of how this was constructed by non-orogenes, and yet, she comes treat Alabaster very much like a human. Once she realizes that it’s been ages since he was able to choose a lover… I feel like that’s the change. That’s the moment when she realizes she has to do the noble thing and step aside so Alabaster can experience something close to freedom with Innon. Because as much as Alabaster tries to give off this sense that he’s broken free from the Fuclrum and their politics… he hasn’t, has he? He’s still ruled by them, too. 

And then my perception of Syen is turned on its head, too! Innon says this: 

“I have met your kind before,” he says. “The ones taken to the Fulcrum.” His accent mangles this into fool crumb, which she finds especially fitting. “You are the happiest one I’ve seen.”

Yeah, this took me by surprise, too. Syen has spent most of this book being utterly annoyed and irritated by Alabaster, at times slipping into rage. But… holy shit, Innon’s right, isn’t he? She does have a confidence about herself. She cares about others. (And looking at her past and her future… that element is still a core part of her character.) She might put up a specific facade, but she’s not a careless, bitter individual. As Innon puts it:

“Many things have broken him. He holds himself together with spit and endless smiling, but all can see the cracks. You, though; you are dented, bruised, but intact. It is kind of you. Looking out for him like so.”

A thing strikes me now: Syen is averse to having kindness associated with her, even though her kindness is all over this chapter. Is all over her time as Damaya. Is all over her journey with Hoa. Is it because kindness is a human trait, and she still isn’t ready to see herself that way? Is she so used to a world of cruelty that kindness feels like a stranger? I can’t help but think of this part either:

It’s peaceful here, in Meov. It’s nice to be who she is in a place that accepts her. Nicer still to know that she has nothing to fear for it. 

She hasn’t really known this her whole life. Not in the village she grew up in; not in the Fulcrum. Tirimol grants her something like this, which makes me think of her children, who gave her such joy. (Is that Nassun at the end of this chapter? Or another child we’ve never heard of?) All of this builds up to my favorite moment in all of this, one that is both striking in its tenderness and queerness. When she returns to where she is staying, she comes upon Alabaster sobbing quietly (as all those in the Fulcrum learn to do), and Innon comforting him. Remember, Innon said that he would look out for Syen, and he fulfills that promise. She curls up against Alabaster, “looks up to see Innon’s sad smile of a welcome,” and then falls asleep as he comforts them both. HE STAYS UP ALL NIGHT JUST TO OFFER THEM KINDNESS AND AFFECTION. I just??? Am so full??? Of yearning and love and respect and sadness, all of it mixed up in an act that is so simple, yet carries the weight of ten different meanings because of this story. When was the last time either person had some care for them? Truly care for them?

I’m glad there was room for this “happiness,” as the interlude notes. I also understand why it’s not the bulk of the focus of the novel, though, and this part drove it home:

…but pain is what shapes us, after all. We are creatures born of heat and pressure and grinding, ceaseless movement. To be still is to be… not alive.

They live in a world called the Stillness, an idea counter to what it means to be an orogene. But I’m thrilled that we got to see this, that Jemisin was willing to explore such emotional depths like this. It also sounds like I am not gonna get a single chance to rest in the remainder of this book, so here we go.

NOTES

  • OMG a Syenite chapter, I’M JUST SO HAPPY. 
  • Eturpic!
  • Ha, the parallel that Essun isn’t sure if she can leave Castrima, and Syenite can’t leave Meov.
  • Oh shit, a volcano! Duh, that makes so much sense. 
  • Ooooh, the way the Fulcrum’s purpose is spelled out here. The “safety” they provide others.
  • what the fuck, the OBELISK made that shaft of the volcano???
  • oh shit, alabaster, you cut RIGHT to the chase
  • WHEW, THE REASON SHE HATES ALABASTER
  • wow. born free. an orogene not raised in the system of the Fulcrum. WOW.
  • i mean, he SOUNDS attractive, Syen. GET IT.
  • HELL YEAH, WE STAN OUR BI/PAN LEADERS
  • “Only Alabaster is vulgar enough to say it aloud.” MY HEART IS SHATTERING.
  • “Not since he’s had a lover, of course. Just since he’s had a lover he wanted.” I truly feel like my soul was ripped from my body.
  • NONE OF THIS CONVERSATION WENT LIKE I THOUGHT IT WOULD??? how is Innon so DISARMING. 
  • “It’s nice to be who she is in a place that accepts her. Nicer still to know that she has nothing to fear for it.” I’M SO FULL OF EMOTION.
  • “Everyone who grows up in the Fulcrum learns to cry very, very quietly.” I’m never recovering from the emotional devastation of this chapter.
  • the sheer intimacy of the three of them sleeping together. i’m RUINED. also this is so QUEER AND I LOVE IT.
  • nope, she threw up, i know what THAT means.
  • CHRIST.

INTERLUDE

  • oh, i love this acknowledgement of pain versus joy. feels very meta.
  • no, absolutely not, no advances, no thank you.

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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