In the third chapter of The Fifth Season, Essun seeks out the headman to find her husband, and then makes a life-altering, split-second decision. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Broken Earth.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of death and grief, specifically the death of a child
What the fuck.
WHAT THE FUCK, THIS IS THE THIRD CHAPTER!!!! T H I R D. Can I live??? Can this book just give me a chance?
It should go without saying that I spent months adoring Jemisin’s writing, and I also want to root my reviews in that sort of praise, too. Like… who is writing like this in the field? That’s one huge reason I was so impressed by The Inheritance Trilogy, and I don’t just mean diction or style. I obviously have no idea of the larger structure, but even just four reviews in, I can barely wrap my head around the narrative leaps Jemisin is taking. In chapter three, for example, there’s such an immense power in the second person, as Jemisin doesn’t just use a rare mode of storytelling; there’s a whole separate layer within it. Someone is telling Essun her story, but is that narrator reliable? Why do they choose what to tell Essun and what they don’t tell Essun? There’s a casual distance here because of that. It’s a story being told to someone else, and we just happen to be bearing witness to that. Yet second person is so fascinating because that distance is simultaneously challenged. There are moments when it is easy to feel like the unnamed narrator is addressing us, the reader, particularly in some of the more emotionally intimate moments. Like this:
Okay. You were wrong. Nausea isn’t so bad as a response to grief, comparatively speaking.
As someone still in the throes of grief, this hit close to home. Yet in second person, it feels like the book is reaching out to me in a personal, direct manner that I wasn’t prepared for. Jemisin is playing with tense and point of view in a way that’s jarring for those of us experiencing the story as an outsider, almost as if it is a reminder that we are outsiders, that we might relate to events occurring but cannot fully understand them… until we put ourselves in Essun’s shoes. In second person… shit. It feels like it’s easier to do that in this mode, rather than first-person or a close third-person.
And look how many sentences took my breath away in the notes below! There’s a delicate wordplay here, one that’s possible because the narrator is a character unto themself. There are bits of bitter sarcasm, tragic irony, and humor mixed in here that fascinate me. Take this:
Jija’s boots can also be traded, because soon you will find him, and then you will end him.
Is this phrased this way because the narrator is omniscient, because they know what is about to happen? You could read this as a direct confirmation of what is to come. But because of the point-of-view, there’s another explanation, another reading: What is this is the narrator sharing Essun’s conviction? What if the narrator knows what is in Essun’s head and heart, what makes up her desire, and this is what is being communicated to us?
UGH, I LOVE THIS SHIT. Look, y’all, I’m not gonna try and say I’m a veteran in this field by any means, but one thing I’ve come to understand is how infrequent engagement is with works by marginalized creators in terms of craft. All people seem to want to talk about is representation and diversity. Important conversations, yes, but can we also be asked about style? Voice? Tense? How we structured a story? So that’s something I want to be conscious of as I read The Broken Earth trilogy, especially since Jemisin’s craft is just… y’all. This shit is on another LEVEL.
This is a craft analysis, too, but I wanted to separate out conversation about Essun’s characterization to focus on it alone. There are so many examples of gut-wrenching sentences throughout this chapter (some of which I’ve pointed out below), and I think I could pick apart the fascinating execution of second person for DAYS. But I also want to talk about how Jemisin is introducing this character to us. Essun has an almost singular focus, not just because of her state of grief and anger, but because of the world in which she lives. Let’s go back to an earlier conversation: How the fuck do fantasy writers tell us about the world they’ve created? A lot of writers rely on blocky, stilted info-dumping, which I’m not generally a fan of. Sometimes, an info-dump can totally work; sometimes, I’m reading a book and thinking THIS PERSON DOESN’T HAVE THE RANGE
I truly believe that I would not have been able to write my first published novel without having done Mark Reads for so long. I have virtually no formal training as a writer, and analyzing books feels like an education sometimes. SO! Let’s talk about Essun and how Jemisin structures worldbuilding around her, which is so fucking impressive that it just makes me FURIOUS because it’s so good. Look at this passage:
The sack contains papers that prove you and Jija own your house, and other papers showing that you’re current on your quartent taxes and were both registered Tirimo comm and Resistant use-caste members. You leave this, your whole financial and legal existence for the past ten years, in a little discarded pile with the moldy fruit.
In these two sentences, there’s so much information packed into the words. We learn how ownership works in the comm; we learn that members of this comm pay “quartent” taxes, which I assume is four times per… well, whatever unit of time we’re talking about. This world requires registration in comms (Tirimo) and use-castes (Resistance). It also speaks intensely to how legal rights are conveyed; these documents are so powerful and meaningful that Jemisin refers to them as “your whole financial and legal existence.”
And what does Essun do with it? Essun’s behavior speaks to her character and her character’s sudden position in the world. It’s an emotional act: Essun knows she will no longer need any of these things. She is most likely going to kill her husband, but even if she wasn’t, there’s a greater conflict here. Essun knows she can never, ever live in Tirimo again. That’s worldbuilding, too. What cultural values exist in this comm? On an even larger scale, it’s clear that the orogenes are so hated and despised that Essun is giving up rights to her “whole financial and legal existence” after what happened to her.
Those documents mean the same thing as a brick of moldy, dry fruit.
All of this is communicated in just under SIXTY WORDS. That’s… that’s incredible??? Look at this foreshadowing, too, communicated in FIVE fucking words:
The obsidian skinning knife that Jija insisted upon, and which you’re unlikely to ever use—you have better, natural weapons—you keep.
I wasn’t ready. I WAS NOT READY FOR THE FULFILLMENT OF THAT PROMISE.
More on that in a second. I just find the economy of Jemisin’s prose—something we saw in The Inheritance Trilogy as well—to be something we can study. Appreciate. GET LOST IN. Because I don’t want to lose sight of the entertainment value of this. This chapter is a slow-burn thriller in a few thousand words. We know that Essun is going to the headman, Rask, in order to get a lead on Jija’s location, and her determination to get this done fuels the momentum of the action. She’s raw around the edges, too, and I don’t want to forget that. Grief is creeping in the shadows of every moment of this chapter, even the end of it. It’s a specter that Essun tries her best to ignore, even when circumstances are pulling her back to the present.
And that present involves a metaphor about how bodies are treated if you’re the “wrong” one. Whew, there’s SO MUCH here, packed into Essun’s journey to Rask, like how Essun feels unsafe to just be out on the street. It is, as you’ll see int he notes below, an absolute trip that I am reading this right now. Because y’all: I am writing this on the day that de Blasio FINALLY lifted that bullshit curfew here in New York City. I am reading this in the time of a citywide lockdown, one that’s lasted almost three months straight. I am reading this in the time when Black people cannot be out and about in New York City without being worried about retaliation from numerous sources: the police. Non-Black people. (And I don’t just mean threats due to protesting. I’ve been doing jail support in Brooklyn and Manhattan for a week straight now as of the time I’m writing this review, and while I can’t give details, I’ve met people arrested for some of the most egregiously bogus “crimes.” All but four of them were Black; the others were non-Black Latinx folks.) It’s a lot. A. LOT. It’s not that Jemisin is a psychic or has had glimpses of the future; this shit is cyclical. It’s happened before, and as long as we in our world don’t change it, it’ll happen again.
So, even with that stuff on my mind, I was already heading into the Rask confrontation with tension radiating through my body. How much would he hate her? Would he even bother helping Essun locate Jija, or would he, too, blame this upcoming Season on a child orogene? Rask surprised me, though, right up until I learned his backstory: his older sister was murdered by an orogene-hating mob. And now he’s spent his whole life in a city he never would have come to if that had not happened. Of course he’d understand Essun on some level. But it goes beyond that understanding. He might have some empathy for her, but look what he does with that. He sullies his reputation by walking Essun to the gate and insisting that she be let out and be free to go. Was anyone else crushed by this?
But for the moment what matters most to you is this moment of public decency, which is a kindness and an honor you never expected to receive.
When you live in a world that offers you no decency because of who you are, sometimes even the most basic act of kindness can feel life-changing.
Which is why what happened next just DESTROYED me.
Jemisin does not pull punches here, and I’m so fascinated by the dichotomy of Essun. She does something undeniably violent and horrific when Karra gives permission to a gate-minder to assassinate Essun. In a moment’s notice, Jemisin tells us exactly what those “natural” powers are, and… I wasn’t ready. I just fucking wasn’t, y’all. One part of this that I didn’t expect (ALL OF IT, IT WAS ALL OF IT) was the SNOW. The freezing! I just associated the boiling earth and the quakes with heat, so just on a detail level, that part was both immensely cool and FRIGHTENING. But as Essun lashes out, Jemisin shows us two very different emotional elements to her defense:
“You killed him,” you say to Rask. This is not a rational thing. YOu mean you-plural, even though you’re speaking to you-specific. Rask didn’t try to kill you, had nothing to do with Uche, but the attempt on your life has triggered something raw and furious and cold. You cowards. You animals, who look at a child and see prey. Jija’s the one to blame for Uche, some part of you knows that—but Jija grew up here in Tirimo. The kind of hate that can make a man murder his own son? It came from everyone around you.
This is such a bold moment, and it’s also an incredible condemnation of something much, much bigger. First, though, let’s acknowledge the brilliant meta-commentary here, as this is all happening in a chapter where Jemisin is ALREADY toying with the you-plural and the you-specific. THIS SATISFIES ME SO DEEPLY. But there’s an emotional catharsis here, one that’s mixed up with the shame that will follow what Essun has done. That catharsis comes from what Essun knows deep down: that the culture in this place stinks so horribly that it gave way to the tragedy of Uche. Notice how Jemisin does not only include the loudest, most violent voices: everyone
These people killed Uche. Their hate, their fear, their unprovoked violence. They.
Killed your son.
(Jija killed your son.)
Oh, these little asides, these internal voices… ugh. IT’S SO GOOD. Because it’s not like Essun feels overjoyed or relieved by what she’s done. In fact, it’s the opposite. It broke my heart to see her blame herself for Uche’s death; if she had just not been his mother, he’d still be alive. Which isn’t fair to herself, of course, but remember, there’s so much grief mixed up in the rage. It’s a grief based on the societal, systemic hatred that she’s lived with, too, and it fucking HURT to read that.
I don’t know if this is Jemisin writing about the notion of self-hatred and how oppressive worlds can cause us to feel this way about who we are, but it resonated with me in that context. Guess what? A lot of us who have lived in a world that hates us have learned to hate ourselves, to blame ourselves for what the world does to us.
Is that how Essun will feel by the end of this novel? This series? Actually… given the POV shifting in Inheritance, I probably shouldn’t assume Essun is the main character the whole time. AH. Y’all, I can’t wait to read more of this. It’s so immediately incredible!
- cool, cool, just an immediate punch in the heart, cool, cool
- oh. nassun is dead. OH. OH.
- that line about “kin and race can mean something too” just shoved me off a cliff
- that one “(Yet.)” on page 67 just bullied me
- the image of all those papers with the moldy fruit is too much
- WHAT NATURAL WEAPONS
- i desperately want to know more of Essun’s relationship with Jija. contrasts. opposites attract, but why here?
- i feel like i have not asked the obvious but is the title of this book meant to talk about this “Season” that’s about to be declared?
- “the market is shut down” line is too real to read in 2020, i’d like to return this year, i don’t have a receipt, i’ll take store credit
- CURFEWS. NO. I CAN’T READ THIS RIGHT NOW
- I AM LOSING MY SHIT OVER THIS LOCKDOWN, HOW THE FUCK
- “broken earth” ayyyyyyyyyy i see you, series title
- “That’s good. Makes things easier.” except on my HEART
- she might still be alive? H E L P
- essun wishing she could blame herself. i can’t.
- W A I T
- IS RASK CHAGA
- wait the timeline doesn’t make sense okay nvm
- “which is a kindness and an honor you never expected to receive” hey, i am overwhelmed.
- WHAT IS THAT VOICE IN HER HEAD?!?!?!?!
- “You’re a surprise, like a sudden toothache, like a heart attack.” this line is art, frame it and put it in a museum.
- i have no words left.
- “at least until the wells die” GOOD BYE I HAVE PERISHED
- “never forget what you are” well i won’t forget this fucking chapter JESUS HELP ME
Mark Links Stuff
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