Mark Reads ‘The Fifth Season’: Chapter 16

In the sixteenth chapter of The Fifth Season, Syenite learns many things that I also learn at the same time. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Broken Earth. 

Trigger Warning: For discussion of slavery, police brutality, torture, compulsory heterosexuality

What the fuck is this book DOING to me!!!!! That whole bit about why no one seemed to be mentioning islands was A HUGE CLUE, and even though it was OPENLY hinted at, I still wasn’t ready. I clearly don’t have all the answers, but I have so much more. In terms of structure, though, this is such a fascinating chapter to come after the previous one. If I’m correct in that the comm that Essun has reached is an orogene comm, then that means that Syen is on a parallel journey, one that is revealing to her that the order of the Stillness is not the only way to live. There is another way, which is what Alabaster was trying to get her to accept anyway. It’s just that he didn’t expect that his “friend” (I use that term loosely) Antimony would save him and Syenite by depositing them on a PIRATE comm named Meov, located far, far from Allia out in the sea. 

That sentence is a lot.

This book is a lot.

So, let’s go through this, one thing at a time. It didn’t take long for Syenite to realize something was horribly wrong once she woke up, and I love so much that we are right there in the moment. There’s an immediacy to this text here, in the sense that I felt completely within Syenite’s body, experiencing Syenite’s consciousness at the same time as her. There’s a power in narrating a character that knows as much of the reader, since it allows us to slip into the story in an intimate way. As she realizes that she’s on an island, it comes along with the realization that she can’t use her orogeny; it’s been numbed by her experience. (Was that due to being inside the obelisk or due to a stone eater taking her to Meov? Both???) And then, almost immediately after that, Antimony is just there, as well as Alabaster. 

All of this is deeply disorienting, but on a metaphorical level, I think it’s brilliant. This book seems to be setting up a journey for at least two of its characters: How will they learn to shed the brainwashing they’ve experienced their whole lives? (I can’t quite claim this to be the point for Damaya, as she’s younger and at a different point in her journey.) What does it mean to challenge the very foundations of one’s existence, particularly in a violent and oppressive system like this? So it fits so well that Syenite’s journey (as well as Essun’s) feels so visceral. Shedding these accepted norms is a painful, confusing process, as is what Syenite is currently going through. Change on this level is never easy.

And so, we meet yet another stone eater, which kinda makes me think these three POVs are happening simultaneously? Like, are stone eaters revealing themselves at the same moment around the Stillness? But there’s a problem with that theory, since neither Syenite or Damaya have referred to the Fifth Season happening, so that suggests they are all at different periods of time. Anyway, Antimony fascinated me. We get the same sense of detachment from her as we’ve seen from the others, but that detachment is more because they’re simply not human, and they don’t behave like anyone we’re used to. I think the stone eaters have different needs. Different concerns. Different interests and motivations and desires! And it makes them seem weird and cold to humans. 

Look, even Alabaster—who has been talking to Antimony for FIVE YEARS—doesn’t really get her any more than Syenite does. She’s just saved him a number of times, though he’s not sure that’s because Antimony cares about him or because the stone eaters have some other use for him. (I suspect it’s the latter, to be honest.) Here, Antimony didn’t just save Alabaster from the Guardian’s attack on him and Syenite. Turns out that Allia is basically… gone???

She’s pointing. Syenite turns to follow the gesture and sees the western horizon. But this horizon is broken, unlike the rest: There’s a flat line of sea and sky to the left and right, but at the midpoint of this line is a pimple, fat and red-glowing and smoky. 

“Allia,” says the stone eater. 

So, unearthing the obelisk had another disastrous effect: it destroyed Allia and everyone in it, I assume. We don’t even know what that “pimple” actually is, but it was serious enough that Antimony intervened to save both of these orogenes. There’s a lot that’s unknown here, concerning Allia and the obelisk and the stone eater in the obelisk and a thousand other things, and I think that’s one of the reasons Alabaster lets his guard down here. He is much more open and honest here about what he knows is happening and what he suspects is happening. Plus, it’s kind of hard to deny certain things—like the presence of Antimony—when there’s proof that this shit is RIGHT THERE. So Alabaster is far less coy or frustratingly vague than he usually is, but that doesn’t mean he has answers. That unnerves me, y’all. Because he doesn’t seem to actually know why the Guardian attacked him, though I think his theory is sound. Someone did not want that obelisk to be unearthed, and since they assumed only Alabaster would be able to access it, they poisoned him. But then Syenite threw everyone for a loop by raising it herself, and a faction within the Guardians was sent to take both of them out. 

So what’s going on with the Guardians, then? Again, I feel like Alabaster probably has a good grasp on what’s happening here, but there are still so many other factors that are mysteries. Who really controls the Guardians? Is it the Emperor, someone we have never seen? There have only been passing references to this person, so how important are they to the Stillness and the system in place at the Fulcrum? Are the Guardians aware of just how powerful and radical Alabaster is? They knew he had the ability to raise that obelisk. But I’m mostly focusing on Alabaster’s admission that he’s been able to find powers and abilities outside the Fulcrum:

“I don’t even know what I’m capable of, Syen. The things the Fulcrum taught me… I had to leave them behind, past a certain point. I had to make my own training. And sometimes, it seems, if I can just think differently, if I can shed enough of what they taught me and trying something new, I might…” He trails off, frowning in thought. “I don’t know. I really don’t. But I guess it’s just as well that I don’t, or the Guardians would’ve killed me a long time ago.”

AHHHHHH, THERE’S SO MUCH HERE! No wonder Alabaster has been trying to get Syen to see outside of her training and the mindset she’s had forced on her. But this also speaks to the training system that the Fulcrum utilizes. I bet the Guardians (and whomever controls them) are fully aware that the orogenes could be much more powerful than they are. But the training they receive limits them on purpose. It deliberate aims to keep them in line through fear and intimidation. And how much of it is just factually wrong, you know? For example: Syenite fully believed that it was not possible for orogenes to utilize or share the orogenic powers of another, and yet, now she knows that definitely is not true.

How much of her “education” was a lie? What does Syenite’s life look like if she can escape the clutches and the brainwashing of the Fulcrum? I have no idea, but I like thinking about it!

Anyway: back to Alabaster. Because his story about Hessionite is just… lord. First of all: ALABASTER ISN’T STRAIGHT. There was a moment in one of his early chapters where I had this quiet suspicion that maybe this was the case, but I didn’t commit to it in a review because it was so fleeting. Plus, I just assumed that his disinterest in sex was because it was required. I mean… actually, that is still true, but there’s another layer to this. Heterosexuality is required of him because this system wants to breed more children from him. It’s a literal manifestation of the notion of compulsory heterosexuality. Which, I should note, is a term created by Adrienne Rich and was initially intended specifically to comment on lesbians and patriarchal expectations, so I don’t want to lose sight of that intersection here. I learned about this term in college, and by the early 2000s, it was used to also talk about queer men and expectations of heterosexuality, but still. It’s important to know where these terms come from. I also want to note that so much of this book is grappling with chattel slavery in a fantasy setting, so I can’t ignore that there’s a whole separate meaning to this in terms of how enslaved people were used for breeding, and IT’S SO FUCKED UP. So fucked up! 

I don’t actually know if this world is like… overtly homophobic either? I sense it is, since Alabaster says that he and Hessionite had to look for a place to be alone? I dunno, I feel like that’s a tacit admission that things needed to be hidden somewhat? I DON’T KNOW. Either way, it doesn’t negate or diminish the tragedy of a Guardian murdering Hessionite for no apparent reason, and doing so with glee on their face. And that part, more than anything, is what got me. Look, it’s hard for me not to start thinking about agents of the state and the glee in which they torture people, often killing them, too. I say that as someone who has experienced this kind of terror from someone who seemed overjoyed to harm me and threaten my life. Where does that joy come from? How can something so vicious inspire joy in others? 

Well, I can’t speak to that necessarily, but these characters are in a world in which this sort of violence is encouraged. The state supports them. Urges them to remind orogenes what place they occupy always. To them, it very well might be the most beautiful thing in the world. Which fucks me up a lot, because how do you stop someone like that from acting out extrajudicial executions? How do you change the hearts and minds of people like that?

I don’t fucking know. But it’s possible to live outside of this framework, and let the island of Meov be proof of that. First of all: I just gotta appreciate how fucking FUNNY some of the moments are in this chapter. Alabaster LOVES proving Syenite wrong, and she just keeps walking right into it? Like, she was so CERTAIN that Alabaster should let her talk to these strangers first because—understandably so—she believed he would just get them in trouble again. Turns out she can’t speak their language but he can:

“I told them you were afraid I’d get us killed if I spoke first,” he says, and she considers killing him right then and there.

INCREDIBLE, THIS IS THE HEIGHT OF COMEDY. Also??? Like the end of the previous Syenite chapter, this line KILLED me:

Also, they’re pirates.

Just a casual addendum, no big deal, also: PIRATES. AN ISLAND OF PIRATES. 

But it’s not just that. Everything about Meov is mind-blowing to Syenite. It’s a comm on an island, one that “sits on top of a hot spot,” and they basically can’t grow their own food, so they take advantage of the competition/rivalry between Coaster comms and steal everything they need to survive. As impressive as that was, it still didn’t explain the bigger issue: How the fuck did these people live where they did? Like Syenite, I assumed that this was a very recent and modern comm, one set up in during this Season because… well, isn’t that the world? Everything I’ve learned confirmed to me that living near a hot spot is absurd, because a quake could just wipe you out. An island??? Forget it! Volcanoes and tsunamis and quakes and a million other things would prevent you from being able to do anything long-term!

I thought that because even though I’m not a character in this book, I believed what I was told, too. I accepted that everything was within a world just like the Stillness. But that’s the point. Meov isn’t within that world. In fact, IT OUTDATES THE EMPIRE. They weren’t ever annexed, it appears virtually no one knows they even exist, and then, Alabaster saves the best part for last:

“Roggas.” He looks at her and grins, and she realizes he’s been waiting to tell her this. “That’s how they’ve survived all this time. They don’t kill their roggas, here. They put them in charge. And they’re really, really glad to see us.”

Because of course you can’t live on an island with a system like that on the Stillness. But maybe you can if you treat orogenes with respect and adoration, because maybe they’d be willing to help an island comm survive.

This fucking book is incredible. y’all.


  • okay she’s on the ground???? and alive?? so that’s… good???
  • how is the weather wrong WHAT’S HAPPENING
  • hwo the ad;skf;jklaajk;askl WHERE TH FUCK IS SHE
  • how is alabaster with her? who is the figure in the robe? will i ever know peace reading this book?!?!?!?!?!
  • an island?!??????
  • i am so confused and terrified
  • another stone eater????
  • what language is he speaking???
  • hi, they KNOW each other???
  • what the fuck happened to Allia???
  • a village on this island????
  • all my notes are questions because i’m just FUCKED UP, y’all
  • Antimony!
  • this is all so much at once, i’m LOSING it. Stone eaters can move through rock like air!!!
  • okay so do stone eaters just like… hide out? they seem like mythological creatures, both in the sense that they’re non-human and because no one has ever seemed to have seen them?
  • i haven’t even properly reacted to Syenite not being able to do orogeny. what the fuck is up with THAT?
  • why the fuck did they want the obelisk to stay in the harbor? does this Guardian faction know what the obelisks are???
  • ooooh, i love the idea that if Alabaster sheds his Fulcrum training 
  • it’s so fucked up that no one knows who commands the Guardians
  • OOOOHHHHHHH they go through a surgical procedure??? THEY’RE ALL CHILDREN OF OROGENES??? Oh god, that’s how Schaffa was able to control Damaya!!!
  • another ten-ringer???
  • hey i just want to definitively state that i hate the Guardians
  • this village makes me nervous
  • “Also, they’re pirates.” I am screaming, i love how quietly funny this book can  be
  • Meov!
  • i kinda respect that the Meovites just don’t give a shit
  • WHAT THE FUCK!!! Ten Seasons or longer??? And they all exist OUTSIDE of Sanze???
  • i love that they use ignorance against the Coaster comms
  • alabaster is so fucking FUNNY y’all
  • Why is a stone eater “folly made flesh”? Something tells me that maybe i shouldn’t trust these Tablet quotes

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!
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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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