In the fifteenth chapter of The Fifth Season, Essun arrives at an impossible place. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Broken Earth.
Trigger Warning: For talk of grief
I got to talk about this at length while reading the Discworld books in publication order, and I’m pleased I now get to revisit this for N.K. Jemisin’s work: Wow, it’s such a treat to watch a writer grow. I say this while fully acknowledging how much I loved her trilogy that I did for Mark Reads all those years ago. It’s just so damn fulfilling to see how she leveled-up her craft in practically every way here. The structure of this novel fascinates me with its three points of view and how they each seem to weave around one another. I love that worldbuilding matters so much to the story, that it’s not here merely to add depth and texture, but to affect the story on a bone-deep level. And don’t even get me started (just kidding, PLEASE DO) about what this text looks like on a sentence level. That final sentence in chapter fifteen? I have perished.
But lets back up to that worldbuilding comment I made, because this chapter completely proves why all the talk of comms and how they function and look matters so, so much. In both Essun’s and Syenite’s parts, we’ve seen comm after comm. Each of them—as referenced in chapter fifteen—has a specific style. It reflects that comm’s values and their societal structure. It’s related to the geography of its location, too. And while comms may vary wildly from location to location, this idea seems to be standard across the Stillness: Each comm has a unity that’s expressed visually:
There’s a reason most comms pick a style and stick to it: Uniformity sends a visual message. It warns potential attackers that the comm’s members are equally unified in purpose and the willingness to defend themselves.
I feel like this is related to one of my favorite speculative fiction narrative techniques, which we’ve seen numerous times in this book. Jemisin establishes the standard, and then a character faces an impossibility that should not exist within that standard. IT’S ONE OF THE VERY BEST THINGS. You can see it all over Syenite’s story, for example. Half the shit Alabaster does fits this technique.
Here, though, Jemisin does this to build dread, though it’s not the sole means by which tension is created. There’s an emotional aspect, too: Essun is now at the comm where Hoa said that Jija and Nassun were at. There’s a terrible hope at play here. Is this where Essun would find her daughter? Would she find her alive? What would a confrontation with Jija look like? So, as the reader, I was on edge for multiple reasons. As soon as those orogene women stepped out of the doorway, I needed to know like fifty things at once, and Jemisin had me right where she wanted me. Ugh, I just love the way that she uses the reader’s desire as a tension-builder, too!!! We all know this comm is weird as fuck; we know it’s absolutely ridiculous that there appears to be a whole comm full of orogenes outside the Fulcrum; we know that Essun’s journey will either be a reunion or a tragedy, but we don’t know which. All these threads are coming together, and I just wanted Jemisin to tug them all at once, to give me the information I needed.
I did not expect the thread about stone eaters to be pulled.
Because that’s what Hoa and the red-haired person are, right? Diamond teeth? Glossy skin? A stillness that is statuesque? They’re stone eaters, right? Why would stone eaters react as Hoa and this other eater do? That perplexes me! Granted, I know very, very little about stone eaters, and I assumed that… I don’t know. They’d be friendly? Because there aren’t many stone eaters around? But these two clearly DESPISE one another!!! Except… oh god, what if I’m wrong??? What if neither of them are stone eaters, but are something else? I CAN’T FIGURE THIS OUT, YOU’RE ALL PROBABLY LAUGHING AT ME.
While I don’t understand that whole thing, I feel fairly comfortable guessing—not stating with absolute certainty—that this comm is basically an attempt at an Fulcrum-less orogene society. What happens when orogenes work with one another, rather than working for someone else? What sort of collective power do they have? Shit, do any of these orogenes know how to do that whole parallel scaling thing that Alabaster was capable of? (Is? Was? I still can’t tell if that storyline is a simultaneous thing or if it happened long before Essun’s timeline.) I am also guessing that this is why the anti-orogene slur is now being utilized as a use name, something that Tonkee and Essun had never seen before. I feel like this is Jemisin addressing the concept of slur reclamation and how a group can take a word or a term and reverse the power dynamic by claiming it as their own. It’s understandable, then, why Essun would be so scandalized upon hearing it. To her, it’s just a terrible, violent word, the single most awful thing that she and her kind can be called.
That being said, I’m curious if we’re going to see a parallel between Syenite and Essun here. One thing I’m loving about Syen’s story is how Alabaster has gotten her to challenge the thinking that she was brainwashed with by the Fulcrum. If this comm really is a Fulcrum-less group of orogenes, then I imagine that they challenge the status quo in about a million ways. Is that why Ykka radiates a confidence that intimidated Essun? What kind of confidence could Essun find in an environment like that?
It’s hard for me not to say something like that and then think about Essun’s near-breakdown after Ykka says that she never saw anyone like Jija or Nassun come through the comm. So much of that inner monologue was heartbreaking because of how quickly Essun believed the worst of herself. Which was, for the record, exactly what most of the Stillness feels towards orogenes. It was a vicious expression of internalized hatred, and it came to the surface so quickly during this moment of despair. It was so fucking sad, y’all. So… did Ykka recognize it for what it was? Did she once feel the same way about herself? I know she helped Essun for a very logistical reason, as I imagine Essun’s orogeny was about to flare out and potential cause a disaster. So yes, there may not have been compassion in Ykka’s voice, but was it in her actions? Again: I need to know so many things!!! LIKE THIS:
“Let me put it this way,” she says. “You can keep doing what you’ve obviously been doing, trying to be as avalanche-subtle as your kind ever gets, or I can start telling everyone what all of you are really up to.”
Hi???? Hello???? What the fuck is that??? Is this related to Syenite finding that stone eater in the obelisk? Why am I completely at the mercy of this book???
But you move to follow her, because neither myths nor mysteries can hold a candle to the most infinitesimal spark of hope.
This might be my favorite sentence in the book. Just… it’s gorgeous. Gut-wrenching. It summarizes Essun’s characterization so fucking well, since… well, isn’t that what’s been driving her this entire time? A Season is upon the Stillness, one that will probably last a thousand years, and yet. AND YET. Here she is, two months into a hellish, strange journey, all because she has that spark of hope that Nassun is alive.
Incredible, y’all. I love this book so much.
- This opening paragraph is already too much. Essun is THERE? And it’s abandoned??? WTF?????
- hey, everything feels wrong, and this is all bad. I FEEL BAD. THIS IS THE BAD PLACE.
- why all the variance in style???
- “Something that makes you more nervous than if the comm had been teeming with hostile people instead.” MOOD! Such a mood!!!!
- LMAO i don’t know why but I find it so funny that essun is like WHO KNOWS WHAT HOA IS FEELING
- two months????
- I AM, FOR ONE, QUITE AWED BY THE MAKEUP
- this is ELECTRIFYING
- omg is this SLUR RECLAMATION???
- lmao of course tonkee knew essun was an orogene
- HI WHAT THE FUCK IS HOA DOING
- HI WHO IS THAT THIRD PERSON?
- Glossy skin??? Is that a stone eater???
- WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON
- NO??? But didn’t Hoa say they were here???
- nope, my heart is BREAKING
- did Ykka do something like Alabaster did? Something on the molecular level? IDK I’M GRASPING AT STRAWS
- What are they trying here? A new society? A new way to live?
- WHAT ARE THEY REALLY UP TO??? WHAT DOES THAT FUCKING MEAN
- “because neither myths nor mysteries can hold a candle to the most infinitesimal spark of hope.” i’ve been murdered by a sentence.
Mark Links Stuff
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