In the third chapter of The Stone Sky, Essun is taught a painful lesson. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Broken Earth.
Trigger Warning: For extended discussion of trauma
It’s wild how much this chapter has made me reflect on Essun’s past. I think it’s far that this caused me to ask why Essun is the way she is. I also don’t think that’s a difficult question to answer. After what she’s been through in her life—from traumas both personal and generational, systemic and emotional—it makes sense that she would find it immensely difficult to consider community as a viable option for survival. No, every time she might have, she’s been burned. Look at what happened to her when she was Damaya, when she was cast out of the home she used to know. Then, as she grew up in the shadow of the Fulcrum, she was never truly allowed to become friends with anyone. Which was by design! By the time she was a full-time agent with the Fulcrum, she still had no close friends, no one she could rely on, depend on, lean on… none of that.
That also adds some context to the events of Meov, too. How could she ever truly feel comfortable there? She had no real experience living amongst a a community that genuinely cared about the fate of others. Essun’s entire life could easily be summarized as one of survival independence. The only person she could depend on was herself. Right? And so, let’s further that analysis and look at her behavior in Castrima. At the very least, she has some friends. I would count Hoa as one. Probably Tonkee, though I do agree with Essun’s assessment that it’s less loyalty at work here and more curiosity. Lerner is growing closer, sure, but what does that attachment actually mean?
Yet she didn’t think of any of these people during the events at the end of The Obelisk Gate. No, as she has historically done, she thought about her own survival. Well, to an extent. I do believe her when she says that she was trying to save the people of Castrima-under. But this goes beyond what Essun’s intent was. Her intent was to save Castrima, yet Ykka (OUR CASUAL BI QUEEN, HELL YES) makes an important point to her about what it means to be part of a community.
Prior to that, though, there’s an important conversation about Nassun that I want to talk about before I delve into Ykka’s point. I am glad that we got confirmation that Essun sensed more than just the existence of her daughter. Now that Essun knows that Nassun was utilizing an obelisk—so well that she was able to resist the Obelisk Gate!—that makes this story a billion times more interesting. This is not simply a case of a reunion, though that is important to Essun. Tonkee makes a good point here:
“So what are you going to do, then, snatch her out of a comm where she’s safe and has enough to eat and can still see the sky, and drag her north to a comm sitting on the Rifting, where the shakes will be constant and the next gas vent might kill everyone?” She looks hard at you. “Do you want to help her? Or just have her with you again? Those two things aren’t the same.”
Wow, that stung to read, and it’s not even about me!!! Granted, we, as the readers, know more about this situation than Essun does. We know how Nassun truly feels about her mother, and we also know where she’s going. But this is still uncomfortable to read because Essun has a huge decision laid out before her. If she really loves Nassun, is it actually more harmful to go get her? Look, let’s put aside the whole Jija thing, since that is a moot point now. (H E L P) What is Essun’s intent here? To be reunited with her surviving daughter is absolutely a reason enough to seek her out. But then what? And what of the task that’s been set before Essun, to bring the Moon back? Does she ignore that to seek out Nassun? I don’t know what she’s doing!!!
At the same time, I also don’t have to worry about this right now, as Jemisin guides Essun into a different direction. There’s a more primary concern: Ykka hates Essun. Well, that’s how Essun perceives Ykka’s anger, and so Essun assumes that the destruction of Castrima’s geode home is what has enraged her. So, Essun has an immediate thing she needs to take care of: repair her damaged relationship with Ykka.
And lord, I was not ready for where Ykka was going to take this. Oh, y’all, I love it when an author is willing to let their protagonist be utterly wrong. Be misguided. BE MESSY AND CONFUSED AND FLAWED. Because again, after everything that Essun’s been through, I do understand her. I sympathize with her, too! Still, Ykka does not have this shared experience with Essun; she didn’t grow up with the same sort of trauma that Essun did. (Which isn’t to say she didn’t experience any.) So, in the shadow of the stone forest (which utterly terrifies me, y’all, and I am so frightened of what they’re going to find inside it), Ykka makes a point: Essun makes decisions that center herself.
It’s a survival mechanism. I don’t think Ykka disputes that! But Ykka has other survival mechanisms at her disposal, and one of them? It’s community. She uses the Rennanis prisoners as an example of that. Essun would have killed them all, as she killed everyone else in Rennanis and froze the stone eaters in crystals. She eliminated the threat, right? And while that does provide safety, look how Ykka interprets a similar issue. She doesn’t murder all of the Rennanese captives, but rather, she takes out the one who is most vocal about not assimilating into the community. Even their previous leader, Danel, makes it very clear that she knows what is necessary now: survival as a group.
“Now it’s about surviving, adapting. Forget all that crap you heard back in Rennanis about Sanzeds and mongrels; that was just propaganda to unite the comm. Things are different now. ‘Necessity is the only law.’”
And necessity has granted Danel and the other prisoners someone who will feed them, take care of them, and give them something to contribute to the whole. Phauld, on the other hand, doesn’t believe in ANY of this and sought to instigate the other prisoners against Castrima.
So Ykka kills him, and then she frees the others.
“Lots of ways to be safe. Yeah, there’s now a bigger chance I’ll get shanked in the night. More safety for the comm, though. And the stronger the comm is, the better the chance we’ll all get to Rennanis alive.”
It’s a calculated move, yes, but Ykka believes in the whole. She believes a group that’s united and given a purpose is always better than one highly motivated individual.
“I play a longer game than just making it to the next day, Essie. Maybe you ought to try it for a change.”
God, it puts Meov in a whole new light, doesn’t it? I mean, it’s not surprising; we always knew that Essun had an immensely hard time fitting in there. She perpetually felt like the odd one out. But it goes beyond that. Again, I was stung by the words on the page, even though this wasn’t about me. Look what Ykka says when Essun tries to say she couldn’t possibly think like a headwoman:
“Well, I’m both,” Ykka says. “A headwoman, and a rogga. I choose to be both, and more.” She steps past you, and throws her next words at you over her shoulder, as if they’re meaningless. “You didn’t think about any of us while you were using those obelisks, did you? You thought about destroying your enemies. You thought about surviving—but you couldn’t get beyond that. That’s why I’ve been so pissed at you, Essie. Months in my comm, and still all you are is ‘just a rogga.’”
That makes me wonder: Is Essun’s arc going to be an acceptance of this? Or will she break this cycle of thought? It’s kept her alive up to this point, but will she come to see survival and living as different things?
- wait, essun doesn’t feel hunger anymore????
- almost like the old days… OH MY HEART
- oh god now I want a whole chapter on how stone eaters amuse themselves
- hi, WHAT. going the wrong way????
- (sorry, took me a moment to remember that she wants to get to nassun)
- this whole situation is so messed up!!!!
- you know, tonkee’s making a great point. there’s a philosophical angle to this that Essun isn’t quite grasping
- that being said: what could essun possibly do to patch things up with ykka but also… leave?
- OH LORD, tonkee is leaving no stone unturned
- well, at least essun knows her daughter is a lot more powerful than she anticipated.
- (she’s gonna lose it when she finds out who nassun is with)
- “Do you want to help her? Or just have her with you again? Those two things aren’t the same.” THE YELP THAT JUST ESCAPED MY LIPS
- HELL YEAH, A STONE FOREST. and they’re prone to unexpected things? scary creatures? oh, I’m not ready
- the whole forest is basically riddled with booby traps. HOLY SHIT
- well, at least essun is taking the diplomatic route
- wait, she’s NOT mad about the geode????
- AHHHHHHHHHHH CASUAL BI QUEEN, YKKA. WE STAN.
- HADFJHADSFJA;LKDSJF HOLY SHIT, DANEL. DANEL OPENLY SAYING THEY WERE ALL FED PROPAGANDA AND NOW CASTING IT ASIDE BECAUSE ALL THAT MATTERS IS SURVIVAL
- ykka. she.. she… holy shit.
- oh my god. her point. essun can’t conceive of working as a unit. she’s always worked by herself. and of course she views the world through the dichotomy of friend or enemy!
- okay the quote at the end. I love the alternate spellings here, and also, once again: an orogene was helping stills survive and was still murdered for it.
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