Mark Reads ‘The Fifth Season’: Chapter 22

In the twenty-second and penultimate chapter of The Fifth Season, goddamn it. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Broken Earth.

Trigger Warning: For extensive discussion of slavery, death of a child, grief

Well, now I know what that chapter title means.

It’s hard for me to think about this chapter and not talk about where this book started. I never once thought it was out-of-character or absurd that Essun chased after her surviving daughter. The arc of this book has always made sense; there was never any doubt about motivation here. But now I’m realizing I never had all the information. There was another reason Essun was thrown into grief when she lost Uche. There was another reason she was desperate to find her daughter. 

Essun had already lost a child, years and years ago.

I assumed some sort of tragedy had occurred here. Something had to have happened to have turned Syenite into Essun, to have made it possible for her to start a new life in Tirimo. She never spoke of Coru; she never spoke of Alabaster; and the previous chapter introduced doubt. Why did Alabaster say that Essun owed him for Coru? And yet, even as this nightmare was unfolding, my assumption was that the Fulcrum had kidnapped Coru and used him for their own purpose. Maybe that’s what future books would be about: Would Essun have to go up against her first child, stolen by Guardians and indoctrinated by the Fulcrum?

That’s kind of a cool idea, but it’s now just an idea. Jemisin’s use of dread and suspense in this chapter is an immense thing, particularly because I kept trying to believe there was some end here in which Coru ended up alive. That being said, there was no part of me that thought this would be a positive chapter. Jemisin had already set up the return of the Guardians, so it was just a matter of time before they found Meov. It was only a matter of time before we discovered the reason for Alabaster’s vague comment. Still… those things aren’t answers. There’s nothing concrete known yet. And at the start of this chapter, there’s… joy. A very strange joy, admittedly. I love how weird this family is. Was? Fuck. Was. And there’s a whole subtextual tragedy to this, too, in that the Guardians destroyed a family that wasn’t traditional, that found a new way to love, that was between three orogenes, all who lived years without the Fulcrum. (Well, obviously the Meovites lived their whole lives without them.) There’s also Syenite’s struggles with motherhood wrapped up in this, too. She didn’t want to have Coru, and she’s repeatedly had to cope with her complicated feelings towards her son since his birth. Even years afterward, she still doesn’t know if she was right for him. 

Which is why Alabaster’s insistence that she is the perfect mother for him stings so much. Especially knowing the ending. 

Then there’s the story of Misalem. Even back in chapter six, I knew that this cautionary tale was too damn vague. One of the most insidious realities we see in the Stillness is how stills and the Fulcrum deliberately hide information. Because look how easy it was (relatively speaking) for Alabaster to get enough information on Misalem to put together an alternative version of the tale, one that’s much more likely to have happened. Misalem did not act because he was evil, because he was an orogene. No, Misalem’s behavior was a reaction. And Jemisin is leaning in on something here that a lot of us have seen play out over and over again: The world having a problem with someone’s reaction to injustice rather than the injustice that inspired it in the first place. And so this story was crafted, stripping out Misalem’s agency and ignoring the fact that due to a Season-caused famine, Emperor Anafumeth KIDNAPPED PEOPLE AND ATE THEM. Not just any people—though it was certainly a lot of random people who were part of “smaller settlements and newcomms held by races without Sanzed allies.” And on one of these raids, Misalem’s entire family was taken and consumed. That was the reason for Misalem’s attack on the empire.

Feels a lot different, doesn’t it?

I remain fascinated by the contrasts between Alabaster and Syenite. It’s been obvious to me throughout this book that Alabaster has tried as hard as he can to break Syenite out of the thinking that the Fulcrum indoctrinated her with. She continues to assume the worst of orogenes, including herself. Yet of the two, only Syenite is actually interested in materially changing the world, even if she doesn’t know how. Once at Meov, Alabaster was fine with that world. That’s such an intriguing contradiction, since it would seem like Alabaster would be the more radical of the two in that context. But maybe that’s the point, and that’s where Jemisin is leading us with this series. Alabaster isn’t the right one to change the world; perhaps it’s got to be Essun at that specific time in her life. Even then, as we’ve seen in Essun’s narration (lord, it’s not even her narration technically, THIS FUCKING BOOK), she’s still struggling with her orogeny being a curse, not a gift. Will that change?

This book is about change, though. I expect the series is going to deal with that on a larger scale. Because even the peace of life on Meov had to change. I’m still in awe of what Jemisin accomplished by this raid. It’s a distinctly vicious and visceral attack in multiple ways, and it’s not lost on me that the Guardians’ partial victory—perhaps more Pyrrhic in nature than anything else—comes from their ability to subjugate any orogene just by being in close proximity to them or their powers. Because orogenes literally cannot hurt a Guardian! Their powers won’t work if they might cause direct harm! So as the ships attack the island, Alabaster has to be creative about how to get around this reality. 

Reading this, though, did not mean that I had hope. I was, like Syenite, proud of Alabaster and what he did here, but I could not escape the dread. I couldn’t. Alabaster’s power was immense, and he was so damn creative, but what good was that power against a Guardian who could simply negate it? So I started worrying about what happened to Alabaster. Where had he been these twelve years? Why didn’t Essun ever refer to him or think about him? At least the last chapter confirmed he was alive, but something had to happen to have kept them apart, right? Because even though Essun has complicated feelings, I still maintain my belief that in her own way, she loves Alabaster. I say that also with the support of her terrible, terrible grief and shock when Alabaster is saved by a stone-eater… who literally pulls his body through the earth. And just like that… he’s gone. I assume Antimony saved him, as she’s done in the past, but… fuck, y’all. That whole sequence was horrifying. And what was that sensation she felt? The mountain below the earth? My thought now: Is Father Earth somehow behind this? 

Shit, I don’t know. I know he survives, but at what cost? Did he just survive, or did he get to live? 

That question is at the heart of the tragedy that unfolds here. Innon and Alabaster begged Syenite to save Coru, to make sure that under no circumstances were the Guardians to take him into their control. I wondered if the Clalsu would be able to escape the Guardian ships. When it didn’t, I wondered if these pirates would be able to successfully fend off the attacks. They were a tough crew, right? 

Innon’s people are good, experienced, but their usual targets are poorly defended merchant and passenger vessels. 

There’s no element of surprise here. There’s no orogeny to hide behind, either. And as the people of Meov are ruthlessly slaughtered by the Guardians and their hired militiamen (I feel like that detail alone is another intentional thing Jemisin did, given how militias operated during chattel slavery), the worst things are yet to come. They happen in rapid succession. We’d heard Alabaster talk of the horrible thing that Guardians could do to an orogene by turning their powers inward, but he deliberately didn’t share the details. Unfortunately, we find out why when Innon… I don’t even want to quote what happens to him. It’s so sudden and horrible and dehumanizing… which I guess is the point. To turn a human not just into the remains of an orogene, but to destroy them so they don’t even look human, so that mistake can’t even be made. 

I should have known that Schaffa would be here. I should have known that such cruelty was led by him. But as horrific as this all is, there’s a spark here, a sign that everything Syenite went through after the Fulcrum led her to this act of rebellion. I think of Damaya, who internalized such traumatic ideas of harm and love because of Schaffa. And here he is, begging for her to give up her child. She was a child when he took her away from her family. She was a child when she discovered the rigid horrors of the Fulcrum and was so deeply brainwashed by that place that she still hates herself some days. She was a child when this man harmed her and used that to internalize the message that she should always, always obey him.

That’s a lot of pressure for one person to take in.

And as the text says:

Even the hardest stone can fracture. It just takes the right force, applied at the right juncture of angles. A fulcrum of pressure and weakness.

Syenite rejects Schaffa, and then she rejects the Fulcrum. She rejects Schaffa by doing something she was trained (abused) not to do:

Schaffa stops. “Syenite—“ 

That’s not my rusting name! I’ll say no to you all I want, you bastard!” She’s screaming the words. Spittle froths her lips. There’s a dark heavy space inside her that is heavier than the stone eater, much heavier than a mountain, and it’s eating everything else like a sinkhole. 

The very act of this rejection is the culmination of a journey she’s been on since she was a kid. It is a fiery, brilliant thing to witness, and it is followed by her second rejection, one in which she refuses to let her son become a pawn and a tool and a weapon of the Fulcrum. It’s an act rooted in a terrible history in our own world: Some mothers killed their children rather than let them fall into the hands of slavers. So, using the amethyst, having smothered her child to death, Syenite destroys everything.

Well, almost everything.

Not herself.

Not some of the people of Meov, who help her get to the mainland. 

And we don’t know if any of the Guardians died as well. Until I see a dead body, I still worry about Schaffa.

But Meov itself is gone.

The ships are gone.

Coru is gone.

And then…

The spark.

I didn’t see this coming either. I did wonder if there was an identity behind the narrator (in particular, I was mesmerized by the use of “we” once), but this? 

I introduced myself to her eventually, finally, ten years later, as she left Tirimo. It’s not the way we usually do these things, of course; it is not the relationship with her kind that we normally seek. But she is—was—special. You were, are, special.

I told her that I was called Hoa. It is as good a name as any.

This is how it began. Listen. Learn. This is how the world changed.

I love the playing with tense there, from second person to first, from present to past and back again. I love that we know that it is significant that an orogene can utilize an obelisk, and so now I have that final piece of the puzzle. The stone eaters want to use her, don’t they? Hoa specifically does. 

But what do they want to change the world into?

NOTES

  • Don’t like this title!
  • What was Alabaster going to say???
  • Also, did she tell anyone she saw a Guardian?
  • YES. TELL US MORE ABOUT MISALEM.
  • Revenge!!!!!!!
  • it’s so fucked up that all this information about the past actually exists quite readily, yet it’s hidden from the people it would benefit
  • OH, NO, NOPE, ABSOLUTELY NOT
  • cannibalism?????????
  • this whole gift vs curse conversation is heavy
  • oh shit, well. guess that answers my question about the guardian
  • “When the world ends three weeks later” CAN THIS BOOK LET ME LIVE
  • I don’t think I’ve seen the phrase “able-bodied” in this context in a fantasy book before!
  • I ALSO LOVE FUN BOOKS
  • the decision to give names to some of these citizens right before some inevitable destruction is HEARTBREAKING
  • oh no alabaster
  • I HATE THIS, I’M SO NERVOUS
  • the way jemisin is building tension here… we know this can’t end well, but HOW???
  • a WALL??????
  • the amethyst obelisk!!!!
  • holy shit, DROPPING BOULDERS!!!
  • UGGGHHHH A GUARDIAN, I DIDN’T EVEN THINK OF THAT. 
  • Ha! the fuclrum!!!!
  • a fucking CANNON????
  • WHAT
  • WHATA;KLJFD;KDSAJKFSA
  • WHAT THE FUCK
  • NO
  • HOW 
  • HOW IS THAT POSSIB
  • E
  • Is this Antimony???????
  • a mountain??? what the fuck is happening???
  • I’m so fucked up by this
  • no, this is so awful
  • I’m literally shaking, this is too much. I mean… they’re pirates? So maybe they do have the upper hand against the Guardians’ ship
  • I’m so upset. 
  • innon
  • I can’t
  • I can’t that was one of the worst things ever
  • FUCK YOU SCHAFFA!!!!!
  • FUCK YOU
  • I’m so upset, I know I already said that 
  • oh no no no no no
  • no 
  • NO
  • NOOOOOIOOOOOO
  • THIS BETTER NOT BE WHAT I THINK IT IS
  • WAIT, WHY DOES THE NARRATOR SAY “WE”
  • oh my god her outburst at Schaffa. her name. 
  • “survival is not the same thing as living” everything is too much all the time
  • goddamn it, it is what I thought it would be. oh my god, this poor woman
  • oh fuck you
  • fuck you
  • that’s who the narrator is?????
  • I can’t
  • I can’t do this
  • this book has RUINED ME

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.
– If you’d like to stay up-to-date on all announcements regarding my books, sign up for my newsletter! DO IT.

About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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