In the fifth chapter of The Obelisk Gate, I may never recover from this book. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Broken Earth.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of the death of a child, child abuse.
Look, I’ll be honest with you all: I actually read this interlude like three times before I tried to write about it. I AM ATTEMPTING TO BE PREPARED. This interlude is a fascinating thing, as I believe it gives a huge clue as to the stone-eaters’ motivations. The vermin analogy is what is helping, but I kept re-reading this to determine who Hoa thought was vermin.
I think it’s humans. I think the humans are the vermin to earth.
Which makes the stone-eaters like… agents of Father Earth? Sort of? What if their purpose is to save the Earth, the very thing that humans keep destroying? HEY, WHY IS THIS SUCH AN UNCOMFORTABLE THING TO TYPE IN 2020?
—whereas you and all your kind have cracked the surface of the planet and lost the Moon.
Lost? Does that say “lost?” Humans lost it???
Anyway, that whole section where Hoa talks about not killing the vermin… I think that’s what the stone-eaters once tried. But the survivors—humans, both stills and orogenes—changed. They became “harder, stronger, more splotch-backed.” They split into factions. They found a way to survive. And then… they kept fucking up the Earth. (And each other, it looks like.)
Perhaps, then, this is why Hoa does not seem to mesh well with the other stone-eaters. He admits to not being one of the “vengeful ones” anymore, so I’m guessing that is why there’s such a divide in any scene where he’s close to another stone-eater. He’s trying a different technique, and I’m guessing that Essun is his pawn in that.
But at the end of the day, does he want to save the earth? Let it die? What side is he on? He says he has already betrayed Essun, but what does that actually mean? And why does he ultimately care so much for her? Why care about giving her life meaning?
I AM INTRIGUED.
And then I am crushed.
Wow, this really doesn’t pull punches. It’s a brutal chapter, but it’s one that feels so deeply caring of these characters, especially Nassun. It’s easy for the reader to see Essun as a good, loving person. She’s struggled with that, most definitely, and we also know she had a hard time being a mother on Meov. But what we know of her relationship with Nassun has been entirely framed in this desire of Essun’s to get her back and to protect her. Actually, now that I think of it, that protective desire has been a huge part of the framing of her daughter. She wanted to keep Nassun safe all these years.
But what does that actually look like? It hurt to read this chapter, but it’s the truth. Essun was so preoccupied with keeping her daughter’s orogeny a secret that she forgot to be affectionate with her. This was how Essun loved her daughter, but it wasn’t how Nassun wanted to be loved.
Mama has said occasionally that she loves Nassun, but Nassun has never seen any proof of it.
Yeah, that’s… wow. It’s a strange thing to see yourself in a work of fiction. I know that’s kinda my thing. I love making literary criticism deeply personal, of course, but just because it’s happened so often doesn’t dull the experience. That particular line took me out because that’s how I felt about my own mother. Hell, I still feel that way. I suppose I understand her behavior more these days. (Therapy has been a huge help in that, y’all. HUGE.) Her way of loving someone was just… dysfunctional. That’s the easiest way to explain it. And while I wouldn’t try to diagnose Essun in that context, I can see an element in dysfunction here, too. Her deeply understandable priority was to protect her daughter. She had to ingrain this fear of being found out in Nassun. She had to train her how to hide what was practically impossible to hide. AND OH LORD, I AM NOW PUTTING TWO AND TWO TOGETHER: my mom wanted me to hide my queerness. My mom wanted me to deny being Latinx.
We’re just having epiphanies over here, y’all.
Look, the point I’m leading to: Once we get this story from Nassun’s perspective, it gives us a new context. She wanted her mother to be as loving as her father, in the way that her father was loving. That by itself is just heart-shattering, but there’s another layer of tragedy on top of that. Her father showered her with affection:
Mama has never lain out on the grassy rooftop with Nassun, pointing at the stars and explaining that some deadcivs are said to have given them names, though no one remembers those. Daddy is never too tired to talk at the ends of his workdays. Daddy does not inspect Nassun in the mornings after baths the way Mama does, checking for poorly washed ears or an unmade bed, and when Nassun misbehaves, Daddy only sighs and shakes his head and tells her, “Sweetening, you knew better.” Because Nassun always does.
It was not because of Daddy that Nassun wanted to run away and become a lorist. She does not like that her father is so angry now. This seems yet another thing that her mother has done to her.
I quoted that second paragraph for a reason: The shift is happening. We’re watching Jija’s crumbling love for his daughter. It’s not gone, and I believe this chapter says the opposite. What makes this so hard is that Jija adores Nassun. Did he not feel the same way for Uche? That’s a disturbing thought, but he didn’t have the same instantaneous reaction as he did with Uche. And like I said in the review for the first chapter of The Obelisk Gate: Jija humanized his daughter because he was closer to her, and it’s what happens here as she does her best to appeal to that part of him in order to survive.
That’s the other shift we watch happen. As Nassun is desperate for her father’s love—as she watches it slip away because of who she is—something GUT-WRENCHING happens. First, Jija strikes her off the wagon they’re on when she gets upset, which… yeah. No. Nope. Ugh, Jija, I know why you’re doing this, but I hate it! So much! And it doesn’t matter how much you love your child if you’re doing shit like this! But Jemisin doesn’t put us in Jija’s head for any of this. We experience it through Nassun, which I appreciate because I don’t think I could actually read this from his point of view. And once the shocks from the Rift roll through where they are, Nassun experiences the major shift, the one that will undoubtedly change her life. She had been dealing with her father’s anger up to this point, something that feels new, uncertain, frightening.
But then the world falls apart around them. That whole sequence is… fuck, y’all. It’s astounding. Gorgeously written, and yet so deeply disturbing. It has to be, though. Jija had to see what Nassun prevented from happening to them. Yet in the post-orogeny clarity of Nassun’s mind, the crack shatters:
In this case it brings an increased clarity of thought, which is how Nassun finally realizes that her father was not hysterical over her fall purely for her sake. And that what she sees in his eyes right now is something entirely different from love.
Her heart breaks in this moment. Another small, quiet tragedy, amid so many others.
Recall earlier that she believed that Jija still loved her. She clung to that. But no more. She can’t. And this is a survival technique, her detachment, her decision to manipulate her father with phrases, with a soft intonation of her voice, with an appeal to emotion. She does this to be “calculated, performative,” yes. She does it so that he does not kill her like he killed her little brother.
They enter a new life, though Jija doesn’t quite know it at first. I think he does by the end of the chapter. I noticed that Nassun was much more open about her orogeny as her father was helping a badly injured man. She just outright tells him that two comms are completely gone and that there’s a really bad Season about to begin. And his response? He’s quiet at first, which… shit. That’s a lot to take in, right? But he’s calculating, too, and using the same hands he murdered his son with, the same hands he struck his daughter with, he snaps the injured man’s neck.
He probably saw it as a mercy. And as he continued south with Nassun, I had to wonder:
Did he kill Uche because he thought that was the merciful thing to do?
- Okay, so… am I to take Hoa at face value? Is Essun literally made of Hoa?
- LOOK I AM TRYING TO BE PREPARED FOR THIS BOOK, OKAY
- Okay, is this a war between humans and stone-eaters? Orogenes and stone-eaters?
- who is the vermin in this metaphor???
- what the fuck is this???
- okay so the stone-eaters defend the Earth, then? And they’re worried about humans—stills and orogenes alike—are going to destroy it?
- THAT CHAPTER TITLE, I AM ALREADY LOSING IT
- hey, great, my heart is broken reading this.
- wow she is already trying to figure out what she did wrong
- oh my god, of COURSE she would see Essun’s behavior in a different light
- “Not like Daddy” HI THIS WHOLE CHAPTER IS ALREADY RUINING MY LIFE
- oh. oh, that’s why Nassun wanted to run away.
- oh fuck oh fuck
- OH NO NO NO NO
- THIS IS BAD
- VERY BAD
- noooooo the same creek!!! stop it!!!!!
- okay this is just… the worst. I am so shattered by all this.
- also I can’t ignore the parallels of jija-nassun, and schaffa-damaya. father figures who love and cause pain at the same time
- I love that we’re seeing the Rift’s effects from this POV
- HOLY SHIT THIS IMAGERY!!!!
- OH NO. the post-orogeny clarity. this is gonna HURT.
- I am literally sitting here with my mouth open. I just… I can’t. this is a lot
- it’s interesting to me that she is now openly talking about being able to sess the Season. maybe that’s part of the detachment that’s happened in her mind.
- what thej;;;asdffads;afsdjlk
- WHAT THE FUCK
- I AM NEVER GONNA BE READY FOR ANYTHING IN THIS BOOK, AM I
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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