Mark Reads ‘The Fifth Season’: Chapter 17

In the seventeenth chapter of The Fifth Season, I will never forget this moment. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to be utterly annihilated by The Broken Earth.

Trigger Warning: For discussion of abuse, manipulation, and grooming of children.

I had a whole review I was ready to write. I wanted to talk about the contrast between Damaya’s story and that of Essun’s and Syenite. Unlike the others, Damaya wholeheartedly accepts and believes the world of the Fulcrum, so much so that there’s virtually no question on her part in regards to what position she deserves in society. Literally, on the first page:

(Friends do not exist. The Fulcrum is not a school. Grits are not children. Orogenes are not people. Weapons have no need of friends.)

There’s no irony here; this isn’t some sarcastic or satirical outburst. It’s what she believes, and we see the manifestation of that throughout this chapter, especially when Binof arrives. It’s not until the final scene in chapter seventeen that Damaya begins to question things, but… I have thoughts about that, too. So that’s what I wanted to talk about! Look how effective the brainwashing is! Syenite, through her interactions with Alabaster, was well on her way to questioning the arrangement of the world. Essun seemed far beyond that, especially in a world where she was able to have two children and hide in plain sight as an orogene. I honestly was ready to talk about how Jemisin was deliberately showing us three different characters in three different stages of awareness of orogeny.

And you know what? I guess she technically did do that.

Fuck me.

So, we’ll talk about the thing that ruined me later. Because look, even if you took out that final exchange, this chapter would have ALREADY been utterly mind-blowing. I’m going to make a comparison here that I know is not something that Jemisin was inspired by, so HEAR ME OUT, because there’s a point to be made. I love that The Fifth Season invokes so many worldbuilding mysteries. What I mean by that is there’s so much hidden beneath the surface (shit, probably quite literally) in this book. She’s built out this layered, complex, and vibrant world, but there’s still so much we don’t know. We’ve got the mystery of the obelisks, left either under the ground or which float mysteriously and soundlessly in the sky. We’ve got the stone eaters, these statue creatures that aren’t human, who have an agenda of their own. We’ve got Alabaster’s life! What happened to that Guardian that was brought up before he was stabbed? What else can he do as a ten-ringer? What plan does he have for Syenite? Then there’s the orogene comm we’ve just come to in Essun’s chapter, as well as the fate of Nassun.

And don’t get me started on the three points of view. (Only because I’m going to scream about this later.)

I was lucky enough early on to be able to watch The X-Files in real time. And while that show had many week-to-week stories that were “resolved” in forty-five minutes, there was a complicated machinery at work under the surface. Conspiracies. Mysterious identities. Agendas that would slowly boil up to the top. Well over a decade after that show began, I stumbled onto LOST at a friend’s urging, and I watched a single episode of season two. That episode was so compelling that I spent three days catching up on what had aired, and I was hooked until the very end. Trying to piece together the mysteries at the heart of these shows—even when some of those answers were disappointing—was so fucking fun, y’all.

Now, creatively and narratively, all three of these stories have virtually nothing to do with one another. But I bring them up because The Fifth Season is satisfying the mystery/thriller part of me that eats this shit up. There are multiple EXTREMELY compelling mysteries at hand, plotted out painstakingly over this book, and that part is important because of how Jemisin gives us a sleight of hand. It matters how she chooses to reveal information, and how often she teases the answer to a mystery, only to introduce a completely new train of thought, one that answers a question I never thought to ask. Case in point: Up until this chapter, I never once wondered what was actually in the campus at the Fulcrum. I was interested in the sense that I wanted to know what sort of training/brainwashing Damaya would receive; I was interested to see where her story would go; I was interested in how all of this would be achieved. 

But Jemisin, through Damaya’s curiosity, began to challenge what I cared about. It reminds me of the textual challenge about islands! Why hadn’t I thought about them or noticed that they weren’t ever mentioned? When it came to Damaya’s exploration during her Free Hour/Night, I had to start questioning myself. Why hadn’t I ever wondered what was on the grounds of this place? Where did they take orogenes like Crack? What else was in the Ring Garden? Why this place? Was the Fulcrum put here simply because of its proximity to Yumenes? Why not somewhere else?

As a reader, this kept me on my toes. Look, I never would have thought to ask these sort of questions if I hadn’t been led in this direction. And there’s a fascinating parallel here, too: I got comfortable within the story, trusting what was narrated for Damaya, and in a sense, she got comfortable, too! She begins exploring where she can, and that includes the administration buildings, as well as Main, the core location in the Fulcrum. (Oh my god, it’s shaped like a hexagon. OH MY GOD.) And this is where Jemisin creates a new mystery: Why are there so many disused wings in Main? Damaya wonders this, too, but because we’re seeing all of this through the eyes of a young orogene, we know only what she knows. 

Which means I have to question that, too. What Binof represents for Damaya is uncertainty. I believe that Binof’s presence is what finally will introduce doubt into Damaya’s mind. For example: prior to meeting her, Damaya just accepts this:

In Main, there are wings that have fallen into disuse because the Fulcrum is larger than it needs to be, or so Damaya’s instructors have told her when she asks them about this. No one knew how many orogenes there were in the world before the Fulcrum was built, or perhaps the builders thought that more orogenes would survive childhood to be brought here than has proven true over time.

At this point in the book, I have to question anything the Fulcrum tells orogenes. As we’ve seen in Syenite’s story (IT HURTS TO TYPE THAT, OH MY GOD, I FELL FOR IT SO HARD), we know the Fulcrum either outright lies or is ignorant of a lot of things concerning orogenes. So… did no one know how many orogenes there were prior to the creation of the Fulcrum? Also, one aspect of this story doesn’t make sense. Even if the rooms fell into disuse, they still look used. Some of those rooms were clearly for a purpose, and I have a hard time believing that no one ever used them. Like the room with all the ornate chairs. Or the laboratory. No, these were abandoned for a purpose, I’m guessing, not because there weren’t enough orogenes.

So what the fuck happened at the Fulcrum?

There’s an answer somewhere within Binof’s appearance, and Jemisin doesn’t make it easy for the reader. By the chapter’s end, I wanted to believe her story, but I don’t know how much I should trust a human in this world. Was she using Damaya? Was this all part of some agenda? I want more than anything to believe that she was a rebellious, curious kid, one who used her privilege as a Leadership comm member to infiltrate the Fulcrum and then get Damaya out of trouble. That’s a nice story, isn’t it? 

But is it just a story? 

I think Binof told the truth here. As I re-read this chapter, she seemed genuinely surprised by a lot of what she witnesses. She’s shocked by not being noticed; she’s shocked by how few orogenes there are, which suggests she was told that the Fulcrum was overflowing with them. I am, however, suspicious of the fact that Binof seems to find and latch on to Damaya so quickly. Why her? Why talk to Damaya over everyone else? Maybe it was coincidence; maybe Damaya made her feel safe. Damaya was also curious, and again, that curiosity begins to turn into something else later in the chapter. Perhaps Binof saw that and used it to her advantage. It’s also obvious that Binof is not just privileged but ignorant. She offered Damaya money to help her, despite that orogenes have no need for it within the Fulcrum. Then she offers Damaya “privileges” for the next time she leaves the Fulcrum… which is never. They don’t do that until they’re older and have rings. So, Binof is in over her head, right? I wondered in the notes below if her parents were geomests, which was mostly me noticing that Binof has an academic understanding of orogenes, not a personal one. She’s never spent time with an orogene! Look how often she seems interested in orogeny in a way that’s deeply uncomfortable for Damaya! It’s like Damaya is something to be studied; she’s not a person to Binof most of the time. I say most of the time because there’s that painful moment later on where Damaya has to teach Binof about how orogenes aren’t kids, they aren’t human, and no one really cares if an orogene gets hurt. So, as much as Binof might be interested in orogenes, she doesn’t actually know what it’s like to be one.

Anyway, lets talk about the Main, and this is where I’m going to start, as I think this is a hint to Binof’s motivations:

“You’re not as scary as the lorists said you would be. But then, lorists lie a lot.”

Binof—if she’s not lying—is a fascinating character because, unlike Damaya, she is openly questioning what she is taught. She needed a question answered, and the people who are teaching her apparently could not do it. So… well, all this happens. There’s a desperation to Binof’s actions, too, as if this is the only chance for her to find out what’s in the mysterious room in Main. She can’t come back another time. It has to be now. 

I loved that Damaya refused to let Binof head down into said mysterious room without interrogating her as to her goal. I just… didn’t expect this:

“Fine. Okay.” She takes a deep breath. “There’s something, an artifact, at the heart of the Fulcrum.”

How!!! HOW WOULD BINOF EVEN KNOW THIS???

“All I know is that… something’s missing from the history. There’s a hole, a gap.”
“What?”

“In history.

Again, when I had a much different review planned, I was going to talk about how Syenite’s story with Alabaster mirrors this. Does Syenite learn that there are gaps in information from Alabaster? Doesn’t he constantly reference a Tablet that apparently does not exist? Jemisin has, up to this point, convincingly shown us that this is a world that is incomplete in terms of its official history. There’s so much missing, so much unsaid, so much untold. Not lost, I imagine, and I’m gonna guess the stone eaters tie into this. But still! There’s an official story, one that puts the orogenes at the bottom of the social hierarchy. And there’s… well, what’s actually happening. 

And that thing is whatever was here, an artifact that terrified people so much that no one settled in Yumenes until the first Emperor, Verishe, settled and “built a city around the thing they were all afraid of.” Well, not just that, but:

“That actually helped keep Yumenes safe in those early years. And later, after the Empire was more established, somewhere between the Season of Teeth and the Breathless Season, the Fulcrum was founded on this site. On purpose. On top of the thing they were all afraid of.”

Which was… an obelisk? Maybe??? A hexagonal shape, a deep impression in the ground, flat-sided walls… yeah, it seemed obvious to me. There was once an obelisk in the ground at this point. And right as I was certain I had figured something out, this hit me:

There: Along every smooth slope, she can see thin, barely visible sharp objects. Needles? They push up through fine cracks in the smooth walls, jagged and random, like plant roots. The needles are made of iron; Damaya can smell the rust in the air. Scratch her earlier guess: If she fell into this pit, she would be shredded long before she ever hit the bottom.

Jemisin answers a question with a new mystery, one even more confounding than before. WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS PLACE. 

I don’t have the answer to that, either. The final fifteen pages of this chapter are just… jesus, y’all. Suspenseful. Horrifying. Completely mind-boggling. Damaya and Binof are caught by a Guardian, and Binof surprisingly does what she can to take blame off of Damaya. At least, I think that’s what happened here. And she also told the truth: She had a question that required an answer. 

Was her question answered?

At this point, who fucking CARES, because I can barely re-read the NIGHTMARE that is everything once Guardian Timay returns to interrogate Damaya. What the fuck do I say? A socket? That pit was a socket? So… if I’m right about the artifact being an obelisk, was it a power source? Because that word feels so specific! And why did Timay ask if Damaya touched one of the needles???

All the expression just stops, in her face. “Did it call to you? Did you answer?”

Hi, what the fuck are you talking about? Why does Timay’s voice change? Who or what suddenly starts speaking through her? WHO IS ANGRY? WHO IS “READYING, FOR THE TIME OF RETURN”?

I have no fucking clue what any of this is. What exploitation? What communion? What battle? What compromise is she referring to?

Well, for the time being, we won’t know, because Schaffa arrives and RIPS OUT TIMAY’S BRAIN STEM. I mean… what the FUCK, first of all. Second: At least now I know that this is where the surgical implant goes. Third: Schaffa actually tells Damaya about this! That part knocked me flat, because… well, why would you admit openly that you have an implant that allows you to control an orogene? But I see this as part of the way that Schaffa controls Damaya. I think he’s figured out how curious she is, how much she wants to learn about the world. He even says that Timay believed that Father Earth was communicating with her, though he ultimately dismisses it as a delusion. Why would he tell Damaya all this? Schaffa uses honesty—or at least partial honesty—to give her the sense that he cares about her.

And maybe he does, in his own, fucked up way. It’s hard for me to see anything in this chapter (or the book, for that matter) as real love. The power dynamic alone is terrifying. For all intents and purposes, Damaya is enslaved, and I don’t see any expression of “love” within that context as being true or real or fair or not… completely revolting? So his honesty is a tactic, and I think he relies on these tactics so much that perhaps they’ve been confused as love in his mind. His perspective is that he cares so much for her that he doesn’t want to see her hurt, which also disturbingly means he probably doesn’t even consider himself as someone who has harmed Damaya. Even though he has! 

In this moment of vulnerability, volatility, and terror, Schaffa pushes her further. Granted, I do agree that he is aware that Damaya is most likely in a ton of trouble. Taking the test for the first ring—and passing it!—a full year before she is supposed to will show the Fulcrum that she is an asset to keep. It may be the only way to keep her alive. 

“I need you to live, Damaya.” Schaffa touches his forehead to her own. “My compassionate one. My life is so full of death. Please; pass this test for me.”

This feels like grooming. It feels like Schaffa manipulating Damaya so that she places his emotional needs and desires over her own. Look how he tries to make her feel pity for him. His life is so full of death! It’s a passive summary of the truth: Schaffa causes much of the death in his life. He does not ask her to pass the test so she can live; he requests it so that he can. 

And then something happens. It is what feels like the first genuine time that this thought process appears in Damaya’s narration. I can’t divorce it from what happened prior, either. This strange girl, a Leadership human from Yumenes, broke into the Fulcrum because she refused to accept what she had been taught. Because Damaya was with her, Damaya learned that there was a secret beneath the Fulcrum, one that had never been discussed or hinted at. 

I believe the tiniest seed of doubt has been planted.

But…

But…

But. She turns her head, and looks at that single drop of her blood on the table.

This is not right.

“Damaya?”

It isn’t right, what they’re doing to her. What this place does to everyone within its walls. What he’s making her do, to survive. 

“Will you do it? For me?”

She still loves him. That isn’t right, either. 

The wrongness is there. She has acknowledged it. And if it starts here, where does it go? How does it grow? How will Damaya look at the world around her, knowing that this is wrong? She has a new lens of perception, and if she is willing to entertain it, where will that lead her?

Well, we know the answer. Sort of. Because then N.K. Jemisin, not content with ruining my life with this brilliant, terrifying, and visceral chapter, reveals the game she’s been playing this entire fucking time. 

“If I pass.” Damaya closes her eyes. She can’t look at him and say this. Not without letting him see the it isn’t right in her eyes. “I, I picked a rogga name.”

He does not chide her on her language. “Have you, now?” He sounds pleased. “What?”

She licks her lips. “Syenite.”

Syenite.

The character I’ve spent a third of this book with.

The orogene with Alabaster. 

That’s Damaya. 

And if that’s Damaya… fuck. There’s another character. One who arrived in Tirimo ten years ago. Who never speaks of her past. Who somehow hid her orogeny from everyone but one member of the comm and her two children. Who lives in a world that doesn’t seem to have the Fulcrum.

Damaya.

Syenite.

Essun.

They’re all the same, aren’t they?

The same person, three different points of her life, and together, they give a portrait of the Stillness at three key moments. The Fulcrum at full swing. The destruction of Allia and the return of the stone eaters. The end of the fucking world. 

I want to know everything, obviously. How does Damaya become Syenite? Why doesn’t Syenite ever refer to Schaffa? What the fuck happened to the Fulcrum in Essun’s time?

I will await some answers. In the meantime: Holy shit, I got played. Completely and utterly fooled. THE STRUCTURE OF THIS BOOK IS SO WILD. I immediately want to re-read everything to see if there were clues I missed??? It’s all too much. IT’S ALL TOO MUCH.

NOTES

  • hey, why does that chapter title give me anxiety
  • wow, the first page of this chapter ALONE is heartbreaking
  • “Dysfunctional weapons are simply removed from the stockpile.” help me, how is one sentence so GUTTING
  • ooooh, we’re getting to see more of the complex!!!
  • oh god, now i know what Damaya is talking about. the guardians’ surgery!!!
  • oh, that IS interesting. why is the building so large?
  • nope, don’t like the image of all the belongings left behind
  • NOPE.
  • yeah, this is both very cool and incredibly unnerving. why was this part of the building left like this?
  • NOPE, DON’T LIKE THE STRANGE GIRL, DON’T LIKE THIS AT ALL. 
  • WHO IS BINOF???
  • this is so suspect. why would this girl approach Damaya about that?
  • Leadership Yumenes??? so… her role and where she’s from???
  • she’s NOT an orogene??? then why is she here???
  • also it’s not like damaya knows how to get in that room!
  • okay, it seems really obvious that Binof is really ignorant about certain things? Like offering Damaya money. 
  • “Lorists lie a lot”???????????
  • i hope that’s why everyone is noticing her???
  • i don’t like this. why does binof think no one is noticing them???
  • OH. THAT’S WHY.
  • is binof the child of a geomest? that would explain a lot
  • binof can pick locks???
  • well, i can see that damaya is now starting to question what she has been taught. but where will that questioning lead her?
  • oh god, that warning is both literal and metaphorical, isn’t it? WHAT ELSE IS BENEATH THE SURFACE
  • “You’re a Leader; change the rule.” THE SOUND I JUST MADE
  • an artifact???
  • a gap in history???
  • WHAT WAS HERE? WHY WERE PEOPLE AFRAID OF YUMENES????
  • I AM VIBRATING WITH NERVES RIGHT NOW
  • okay, my guess is it’s on top of an obelisk? maybe another obelisk with a stone eater inside it?
  • how did those lights come on
  • omg there was an obelisk here, right???
  • NO
  • NO NO NO
  • I NEED TO KNOW
  • STOP
  • i am so nervous!!!!
  • what the fuck is going on
  • okay clearly Binof’s use name commands respect and power
  • socket???????
  • call to her???
  • what the fuck is happening??????
  • it didn’t say anything to her????
  • WHO IS TALKING????
  • I’M LOSING IT, WHAT IS THIS???
  • what the fuck did schaffa do?!??!?!?!?!
  • what the fuck is this book!!!!!!!!
  • okay now that I have (barely) recovered, I’m guessing Schaffa removed whatever surgical implant Guardians get to give them their powers
  • Father Earth?? that socket is a connection to… what??????
  • i am so confused by Schaffa’s reaction
  • this is SO DISTURBING
  • oh my god he’s “connecting” to her through his implant, isn’t he?
  • what the fuck HOW IS SHE IN A STATE TO TAKE A TEST
  • Why does this feel so deeply, deeply manipulative?
  • wait wait wait why is she having these thoughts right now???
  • fuck you
  • fuck all of you
  • fuck you all forever
  • i can’t believe it
  • i can’t believe i fell for this for four hundred and fifty fucking pages
  • i am never going to forgive any of you ever again
  • oh my god
  • all three of them
  • they’re all the same person aren’t they
  • oh my fucking god
  • damaya grew into syenite who grew into essun
  • THAT’S WHY WE DON’T KNOW ANYTHING OF WHAT HAPPENED BEYOND TEN YEARS AGO WITH ESSUN
  • OH MY GOD I HAVE A MILLION MORE QUESTIONS
  • OH i don’t feel like i have EVER in the history of ALL TIME been so completely ruined by a plot twist
  • HOW MANY UNFORTUNATE THINGS HAVE I SAID OVER THESE REVIEWS
  • LITERALLY IN THE LAST ONE I SAID SOMETHING EMBARRASSING
  • i can’t

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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