In the first chapter of The Fifth Season, Essun disappears within herself. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Broken Earth.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of death (including death of child, death motivated by bigotry), grief
This was intense, for reasons that are obvious and maybe some that weren’t. But let’s start here: someone is telling this story to Essun! The second person narration is from… someone? I don’t know that the identity of the narrator is important. Rather, it’s the context: we know the world is ending. Is the narrator trying to tell Essun the story of what happened for some specific reason? Are they telling her this at the start of a new beginning so she’ll remember what came before? Because that’s where my mind went after reading those opening words. From there, I started making associations. For example: Essun is an orogene. Is that who that man was in the prologue, the one who reached out to the others with his sessapinae? Because Essun appears to have something very similar. And then there was this part:
For the past ten years you’ve lived as ordinary a life as possible. You came to Tirimo from elsewhere; the townsfolk don’t really care where or why.
Where exactly did she come from? Why is this so ambiguous here? Because y’all, we just saw a being arrive outside of Tirimo and mimic humanity. Except… Essun is human, right? Both? AH, I DON’T KNOW YET. But I feel like these little things are important. How old is Nassun? When did Jija and Essun get married? Where is Nassun? Was she sent away or hid because Jija discovered a latent orogene power in her, too?
Jemisin makes it clear in this chapter that the people of the Stillness don’t just fear the orogene; they hate them. There’s a slur for them in this world, too. But, of course, the most horrific end result is right there on the page, at least for Essun: her son must have exhibited some of her powers, and Jija murdered him on the spot.
One thing I liked so much about The Inheritance Trilogy was how Jemisin took our very real oppressions and layered them into a fantasy world. Yet she avoided what so many fantasy writers do: craft metaphors that lack bite, that don’t represent the experience in a way that feels authentic or real. Even worse, you get this thing (that I’ve complained about quite frequently) where a real-world oppressive order is transported to a fantasy world, but none of the people it actually affects are in the world at all. So, you’ve got the Harry Potter syndrome: a half-decent exploration of racism and blood purity, but it’s an almost entirely white cast. (Fuck J.K. Rowling, for the record, just in case it wasn’t clear.)
This isn’t what’s happening here. I can see so many parallels already. A hated people. The murder of a child because they start behaving strangely. A woman who has to hide who she is for fear of retribution. And now, ten years after she arrived in Tirimo, the end has begun. Her young son is dead, the world is falling apart, and everyone has figured out that she must be an orogene, given that Tirimo was spared from the earthquakes that decimated literally everywhere else.
But this was hard to read because I unfortunately know the debilitating power of grief due to recent events. Not just losing the love of my life, but the number of acquaintances and friends I’ve lost to this fucking pandemic, too. Jemisin accomplishes something phenomenal here. This is not in first person, so despite that there’s some distance between the narrator and the main character, we are still transported into Essun’s experience.
And you… shut down. You don’t mean to. it’s just a bit much, isn’t it? Too much. You’ve been through a lot, you’re very strong, but there are limits to what even you can bear.
First, I should acknowledge that this line has a whole different context when written by a Black woman. I won’t speak on this at length, but this society has violent and deeply unfair expectations on how much pain a Black woman should bear. I also found a personal meaning in this because sometimes, death is what shows a person their limits. I’m a pretty patient person, and I’ve lived a life that has, at times, been incredibly intense. But there are limits, and I found mine in the last six months.
Some of those limits relate to what we do around the deceased. How do we view their bodies? What habits or rituals do we pick up in order to cope with death? The blanket thing fucked me up; I kept one of his blankets, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I let it lay on the side of the bed he should be in, a side that I don’t sleep on ever. It’s just… a thing I do. It makes sense to me. So reading Essun staying with Uche’s body—and refusing to let Lerna cover up his face because he’s afraid of the dark—felt like the most relatable thing in the world. Yeah. I get it. It doesn’t need to make an external sense: it’s the most sensible thing imaginable for Essun to do.
And then there are people like Lerna, the ones who take on some of the burden of grief. It’s clear that the two haven’t seen one another in a while, and yet, Lerna helps Essun in a very real way. For some people—myself included—I don’t eat when I’m grieving. I can somehow go hours and hours and hours without thinking about food. Lerna takes care of many of the “normal” things that Essun will need, and sleep is a big one. He does all this without question, too, which is one way that Jemisin reveals a vital quality of his: He appears to be one of the few people who doesn’t despise Essun because she is an orogene. Hell, later on, he’ll be angry on her behalf:
“Half of them are appalled, but the rest are glad Jija did it. Because of course a three-year-old has the power to start shakes a thousand miles away in Yumenes!”
Jemisin is slowly revealing the complicated politics of this society. Do most people believe that orogenes are responsible for the shakiness of the world? Is that why they’re so hated? Is that why they cheer on the death of a young boy?
Wow, that is also a very upsetting thing to type in 2020, particularly right fucking now.
There are also a number of smaller details here that I don’t quite understand. Like Strongbacks. What “stonelore” is and what Essun meant by referring to it. (Though I feel like she means that there’s lore surrounding the “end,” right? It must be a reference to that Tablet that’s quoted at the end of the chapter.) Who is Rask? What about the Resistant use-caste? What are they resisting against?
And what the fuck is Jija going to say when Essun finds him?
- HELP ME, THE OPENING. HOLY SHIT.
- what the fuck is an orogene?
- “Well. One left who knows, now.” HEY FUCK YOU
- heeyyyyyy, butcher, heyyyyyyyyy
- “He doesn’t like that,” you say. UGGGGHHHHH MY HEART
- NOPE, the cat ruined me
- “sessed” there’s that verb again! i assume it has to do with “sessapinae”
- okay wait, she “put something in its way” HI WHAT
- OH SHIT, this world has its own slurs for the orogene
- OH NO OH NO OH NO
- “…but the rest are glad Jija did it.” fucking hell
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.