Mark Reads ‘The Broken Earth’: Chapter 20

In the twentieth chapter of The Fifth Season, Syenite asks for a change. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Broken Earth.

Holy shit, THE TIME JUMP AT THE OPENING OF THIS CHAPTER. As I said in the Notes below, it really contextualized the Interlude. Two years. Over two years have passed, allowing Syenite and Alabaster years without the Fulcrum. Without Guardians. Without rules and missions and disrespect and hatred… years of relative peace. It’s hard to wrap my mind around that because life in the Stillness for orogenes is so wrought with conflict, as we’ve seen, and here, on Meov, it’s not. At all! I wonder if that’s part of the reason why Syenite is so restless. Not that I disagree with her assessment; obviously, she’s bored, and she feels a bit trapped on this island. But she was also raised in a highly dysfunctional environment where she was expected to constantly do things for other people as an orogene. Is there a part of her that craves that? Is she having a hard time adapting to freedom because she’s so unused to it? 

Just a thought. I’m not sure that’s actually something that has any evidence in the text. So, instead, I’ll take this at face value: After years of taking care of her son, Corundum and becoming part of life on Meov, Syenite itches for more action. Thus, her only way out is piracy, and I am so thrilled that I get to type that sentence, y’all. PIRATES. There are pirates in this book, and I’d almost forgotten that. Lest you think it’s all joy, though, Jemisin doesn’t ignore the risks present in how the Meovites survive. If anything, I almost felt like this was more dangerous because of Syenite’s presence?

I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Having read the whole chapter, I have a different grasp on Alabaster’s reaction to Innon allowing Syen to go along with her. Hell, even the scene where Syen tries to convince Innon to take her on a raid feels different once I read it all through a different lens: These three people are in love. They absolutely are. And that makes me so happy, first of all, because it’s a relationship structure that is so rare in fiction. I hesitate to label it as polyam because I don’t know that this is exactly accurate. (It’s an affection dihedron!) Rather, it is simply unlike the usual monogamous relationships we see in the world and in books. And considering that, Innon was trying to warn Syen, wasn’t he? He loves her. He cares about her deeply. Yet there’s a certain ruthlessness on the sea that doesn’t leave much room for love and affection. In fact, the ending of this chapter wouldn’t have happened if there wasn’t love between Innon and Syenite, you know?

That love has a different manifestation and meaning between Syenite and Alabaster, but it’s there, too. That’s why he asks what he does:

“Will you come back?”

From Alabaster’s point of view, Syen’s accomplished everything she needed: she has her freedom. She gave birth to their child, which they can leave with the people of Meov. And what’s unspoken here? I think Alabaster developed a love for Syen that he was convinced was not reciprocal. I really do! Particularly because of this part:

And now he turns to glare at her full-on, and it actually bothers her, the hurt and loneliness that lurk beneath the veneer of anger on his face. It bothers her more that this bothers her.

I also don’t want to ignore that he angrily snaps at Syen, saying he’ll remain behind for Coru. That’s an important part of this, too. He loves that child, clearly, so perhaps some of this tension is due to his desire to have Syen be a mother to Coru. He also knows he’s going to miss her, and right under the surface is a very real fear: He’s going to lose her. And he doesn’t want that! What’s even more fascinating to me is that I’ve read Alabaster as the more “radical” of the two of them, in terms of how willing he’s been to challenge institutional knowledge, myth, and what Syenite insists is “true” about the world. But look at their conversation around their mutual apologies: Syenite knows deep down that what she’s looking for is a way to change the world. Alabaster, on the other hand, wants to accept Meov as the best the world has to offer.

One wants to move forward.

One wants to stay put. 

And that’s one hell of a conflict in one hell of an unusual relationship. Well, maybe unusual for us; maybe unusual for orogenes; but perhaps this is not that unusual for the people of Meov? Maybe they don’t practice monogamy at all, and this is perfectly normal for Innon. I mean, shit, he seems real good at having sex with two people at the same time LOOK I HAD TO SAY IT, OKAY. That whole scene is so… loving? Considerate? Complicated, yes, since Syenite realizes she’s only into sex with Alabaster through Innon, not on her own. And who needs to label that? It brought happiness to Syenite’s life… for the time being.

Because then: PIRATES. Not just pirates, but wow, what a RUSH it was to be out on the open sea, y’all. It’s the first time that’s happened in the whole book, and this chapter made me realize just how much time is spent on the ground and talking about the ground. Which I get; this is The Broken Earth. But that emphasis is so intentional on Jemisin’s part, and I adored that this chapter gave us a scene where Syenite experiences two wonders, one after the other. She gets to see a massive sea creature in the ocean, one that “seems amused by Syenite’s awe.” It’s a gorgeous sequence that reminds us again that there is a world outside the Stillness, that life exists without the Fulcrum and without such a wretched system of exploitation.

Then there’s the world above. The only time the narrative looks up is when discussing an obelisk, but here, Innon teaches Syenite what stars are. God, it’s also beautiful and deeply intimate, especially because the sky held no real meaning for Syen. The earth is what matters. But this is all about her shifting perspectives, isn’t it? She’s now a mother; she’s now in love; she’s lived in freedom; she has choices. Real choices! Not ones that are coerced out of her like the were with the Fulcrum.

Which does make the end result of the pirating so uncomfortable. It was amazing to get to see Innon and the crew in action. It made it obvious how they’d been able to keep up this system for so many years. They’re skilled as hell! They know exactly what they’re doing, and by using the element of surprise and confusion, it’s clear how they could keep the mystery alive, too. Who were they? Where did they come from? There was no real way for anyone to find out. 

This is also why Syenite misjudges one of the ships in this raid. She has no experience with pirating, so after the Clalsu boards the cargo ship, she doesn’t anticipate the attack ship coming after them through the fog. Instinct kicks in, and it’s an awe-inspiriting display of her knowledge and training. There’s a contrast, too, between what she can do and what Innon can, since he never had the rigorous training that allowed him to finely control his orogeny. So he’s impressed, maybe a little fearful of Syenite after she sends a piece of bedrock into the deck of the attack ship. He also realizes that Syen wasn’t subtle enough, that this outright confirms the pirates have an orogene on their side, and so he gives Syenite an order:

To sink both ships. 

There is only a little reluctance before Syenite complies, but that time is vital. She’s never killed on order like this. She’s also never had a motivation that is her own. Yes, Innon orders her, but she quickly realizes she has a family—a very odd one—to protect. She has a home that she wants to stay her home for the time being. So she does as she is told, only with a muted sense of guilt for what she’s done. That’s new for her, too. The Syenite we saw even three years prior probably wouldn’t have done this without a big fight. But she’s changed. She’s comfortable. And that comfort made it easier for her to rationalize the death of the people who got raided. 

I think it also made it so that she didn’t think of the ramifications of visiting Allia. I am only the tiniest bit proud of myself for figuring out that the Fuclrum left Allia as it was on purpose, and I’m mostly just terrified of what this is going to mean. Allia was left in a nightmare state, and my guess? The Fulcrum figured that Alabaster or Syenite survived, and one of them would return to the scene to “fix” it. And maybe it was just one or two Guardians stationed there year round. (How they survived in Allia is another question.) I suppose that doesn’t even matter, because doesn’t this ruin everything? God, the irony of Innon telling Syenite that he had to assure the crew that she wasn’t going to kill them, and yet… fuck. The Fulcrum is going to know. Meov is no longer safe, is it? 

I’M SO WORRIED. 

NOTES

  • WHAT. WHAT THE FUCK. THIS TIME JUMP. HOLY SHIT. Oh, the interlude makes so much more sense. Two years of calm! of happiness!!!!
  • communal nursing!!!!
  • Oh, the child’s name is Corundum, which… oh no. WHAT HAPPENS TO THIS CHILD
  • oh, i love that this is how she’s learning how useful orogeny is
  • it’s also fascinating that Innon is powerful but untrained, meaning he doesn’t have a grasp on controlling his orogeny
  • I’M SCREAMING AT THE LITTLE OLD LADIES COMMENT
  • oh.
  • OH.
  • HE THINKS SYENITE IS GOING TO LEAVE FOREVER
  • W H A T
  • YOU’RE KIDDING ME
  • Coru is quelling quakes????????
  • HE IS TWO
  • i’m losing it at how intimate these two have become
  • i’m so fascinated, how does she become Essun??? What happens to Coru???
  • well, alabaster, the world is gonna be destroyed in a decade or so anyway
  • I LOVE THE SEXUALITY IN THIS BOOK
  • an affection dihedron!!!!!!!!
  • it is so weird that she’s not on meov. WEIRD
  • also weird: how little the sky is talked about outside of the obelisks!
  • i also now can’t get over that PIRATES. pirates! in this book! an actual pirating raid!!!!
  • HOLY SHIT SYEN.
  • oh my god she took that ship OUT
  • oh. 
  • oh no, she has to—
  • holy shit. for her family??? omg 
  • hey, what??? destroyed his only child???
  • i also think it’s fascinating that by pure coincidence i have an origin story kinda similar to the father earth one in my upcoming fantasy? it has no real contextual similarity, but still. i think that’s cool as hell. 
  • oh no, what happened to Allia????
  • oh. THAT happened to Allia. 
  • oh god, syen, should you be doing this? what if someone is monitoring the area???
  • what if the Fulcrum left it like this on PURPOSE???
  • holy shit, alabaster!!!!
  • oh, no, innon, you DEFINITELY do not want to go to the Fulcrum
  • oh lord, of COURSE he doesn’t actually know what the Fulcrum is!
  • NO. NOOOOOO OF COURSE. I KNEW IT. I KNEW THIS WAS A BAD IDEA. 

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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