Mark Reads ‘The Fifth Season’: Chapter 12

In the twelfth chapter of The Fifth Season, I think I’m going to have to open all my reviews with a request for help because I need it. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Broken Earth.

Trigger Warning: For discussion of racism, slavery

There will never be a day in which I am ready for this book. I feel wrung out. I just… how? How am I supposed to anticipate what is happening? I’M NEVER READY FOR ANYTHING!!!!

So, let’s start with Syenite, even though I want to SCREAM about the title of this chapter and what it might mean. (A toy? A toy???) It’s so clear that Syenite was inspired by Alabaster, that she sees a value in the way that he pushed back on Asael before. I don’t think she would have behaved as she did here without that experience. (Well, except for one part, which I’ll get to later.) She challenges Asael on behavior that Asael takes for granted. If we view much of what happens here through various lenses—say, the experience of Black Americans in a post-chattel slavery world, or even within chattel slavery itself—there’s commentary here that aligns with that reality. Throughout Asael’s interactions with the orogenes, there is a basic lack of respect, one that is entirely due to who they are. This is in spite of the fact that there is a material need here: without orogenes, Allia would collapse. Its port would become completely closed off due to coral, the comm would dry up, and people’s entire livelihoods would be destroyed. Not to mention that there would be death in all this: death due to starvation, to poverty, to fighting amongst those who have so little while others hoard wealth and resources. 

But this need is not one that elevates the orogenes; this entire world was built on their backs. It was saved by them. And they are still, in terms of a social and financial and political hierarchy, right on the bottom. They aren’t viewed as human; they aren’t viewed as worthy independent of their value to the state and to others; they aren’t afforded even a basic sense of decency, because they’re wrong and they deserve to be serving others.

Sounds real familiar, doesn’t it?

And so yes, it’s satisfying to see Syenite push back, especially because it’s a victory she can achieve. On some level that’s heartbreaking, right? She currently doesn’t believe she can save the system, but she can criticize her treatment now and at least get some concessions. Respect. Generosity. A general acceptance that she knows what she is doing. (I say “general” because as we see later in the chapter, there’s still some instinctual bias against orogenes that is impossible to root out, and people are condescending to Syenite.) That her work is one of a “skilled expert who’s been learning her craft since childhood.” Syenite wants the same deferment that non-orogenes get: that people defer to experts because they’ve working in their field for many, many years. 

I did find it interesting, for the record, that even after tearing into Asael, this happens:

Syenite pauses, takes a deep breath. She must stay polite, and wield that politeness like a finely knapped glassknife. She must be cold and calm in her anger, lest a lack of self-control be dismissed as the mark of monstrosity.

Even in this moment, her training—the same training we’re watching Damaya go through—still pops back up. She remembers the place she was taught to occupy, the tone she is supposed to have. But she doesn’t give up this time. She continues to put pressure on Asael, and it leads to this INCREDIBLE exchange.

“Isn’t it understandable that we might be… uncomfortable?”

“Discomfort is understandable. It’s the rudeness that isn’t.” 

Still, Syenite knows when she is wasting her time, and I loved that Jemisin had her be like, “She doesn’t matter, why am I walking her through this?” And then Asael utters that slur, and it’s very clear how Asael views orogenes, so why bother? Syenite isn’t going to change her mind, so she might as well get what she wants.

She doesn’t quite get that, of course, since Heresmith, the lieutenant governor, is the only one to show up, but at least it’s something better than the situation the day before. I couldn’t tell how genuine Heresmith was being, but I almost don’t think it matters if Syenite was being treated better. (Syenite is slowly understanding Alabaster more and more, isn’t she?) From there, though, Jemisin takes us to the harbor, so that Syenite can examine the job that she and Alabaster were hired for. Dread starts building in the pages pretty much as soon as they arrive there, given that Jemisin opens after the scene break with this:

The harbor’s wrong.

Because I knew that Syenite didn’t mean that the harbor was fucked up. She knew that going into this, and we knew some of it beforehand, too. No, I immediately knew that this meant that something unexpected was off. That this job, one that Syenite was fairly certain was going to be relatively easy, would not be at all. 

“That’s not coral,” she says.

Wh—what is it, then? I thought coral growth had blocked this harbor.

But more importantly, it isn’t there.

The rock beneath the raised layers of silt and sand, that is: She can’t feel it. She should be able to, if it’s pushing up the seafloor like this. She can feel the weight of the water atop it, and the rock deformed by its weight and pressure underneath, and the strata around it, but not the actual obstruction itself. There might as well be a big empty hole on the bottom of the harbor… around which the entire harbor floor has shaped itself.

Cool. Cool. Just a basic physical impossibility here. No big deal.

EXCEPT YES, THIS IS A HUGE DEAL. I loved the conversation that ensued after this realization, not just because it helped me understand the situation, but because Jemisin uses it to dig in to local politics, bias, and comm life. Which is brilliant! How local governments make decisions reflects on the worldbuilding. Was a quick fix needed out of laziness or desperation? Or was it both? I also can’t ignore the unspoken implications of Heresmith’s revelation of the cost of hiring agents from the Fulcrum. Because if these jobs are so expensive… who exactly is getting that money? Something tells me that the majority of it doesn’t go to the orogenes. We know from Syenite’s early chapters that she doesn’t have a lot of money, given that she has roommates, so… oh lord. It probably mostly goes to the people running the Fulcrum and to the system that keeps it going. THIS IS ALL SO DEEPLY UNCOMFORTABLE. Right???

But the money matters to this situation, so that’s why the conversation is important. It informs the eventual decision that is made. The Fulcrum’s costs are so high that it takes decades to pay them off if you’re a small comm. Geomest studies are also expensive—perhaps costing the same amount, it looks like—and complicate matters. And then there’s the failing harbor itself, which is pushing business to other harbors along the cost. So waiting to conduct a study? Might be pointless if the comm’s business dries up. Clear out the coral? Well, it’ll just come back, and then the comm will have to endure an additional cost on top of the exorbitant fees. 

And then Syenite offers up a suggestion that is so much more sypathetic than anything these people would ever do for her or her kind. She is willing to get in trouble if she leaves the job without doing it, allowing the comm to get their fees back. It’s a striking choice, especially after Asael implies that Syenite is cheating them, because she shows more humanity than these people say she is capable of. They’ll never see that, though. Maybe Heresmith, who does, by the end of this, seem actually appreciative of Syenite’s offer. But even she knows they can’t delay a solution, so she asks Syenite to clear out the harbor. 

I was nervous already. Truly. And I figured something fucked up was about to happen; Jemisin is nothing if not a very intentional writer, which I learned while reading The Inheritance Trilogy. I also (wrongly) assumed that when she fell into the same disorienting experience as she had the night before that Alabaster was doing his parallel scaling thing.

Something like what she felt last night when Alabaster comandeered her orogeny. But this isn’t Alabaster.

Oh. Oh, okay, so I wasn’t prepared for this, and I knew right then that this was going to be a million times worse than what I could have imagined. I assume now that for a brief moment, Syenite shared powers with the being inside, right? I know I’m getting ahead of myself, but that’s what that was, yes? 

Because it’s literally the only here I might actually be able to understand. God, all of page 313 is an exercise in tension, and it’s done so incredibly well. I love that Jemisin gives all these visceral details of what’s happening around the object that has been lifted out of the harbor floor, but she hides the object itself until the last possible moment:

She turns.

There, rising slowly from the water and shedding the remnants of its earthen shell as it begins to hum and turn, is an obelisk.

I can’t. I can’t even pretend I knew this might happen.

WHAT ARE THE FUCKING OBELISKS. What are they??? Why is everyone just cool with them floating in the sky? Why is there one BURIED BENEATH A HARBOR.

But something’s wrong with it—


A person. There’s someone in the thing, stuck like a bug in amber, limbs splayed and still, hair a frozen spray. She can’t make out the face, not quite, but in her imagination the eyes are wide, the mouth open. Screaming.

I’m still falling after Jemisin shoved me off this cliff. I don’t even KNOW. What do I say? How is this possible?

She accepts that what is trapped at its heart, what has somehow broken this massive, magnificent, arcane thing… is a stone eater.

And it’s dead.

My first thought: Is that what Hoa is? I know a lot of us are operating under the assumption that the being from the geode thing in the prologue is Hoa, and he ate stones/gems, right? So… maybe I’m just grasping because I have NO FUCKING IDEA what’s actually going on here?

I need help.


  • Asael knew exactly why Alabaster is sick, right? WAS SHE IN ON IT
  • HAHAHAHA it is such a delight to see Syenite get more bold in her behavior
  • ooooh, look how her teachings come back to her so quickly after her outburst
  • “Discomfort is understandable. It’s the rudeness that isn’t.” I NEARLY FELL OUT OF MY CHAIR
  • incredible. INCREDIBLE. Now Asael is making it happen.
  • a tour??? shit, i’d say yes
  • “The harbor’s wrong.” Oh no. OH NOOOOOO i’m scared.
  • what the fuck is it if it’s not coral????
  • i have no idea what this thing could be.
  • see, i had no idea what sort of cost there was here. who gets that money? something tells me most of it doesn’t go to the orogenes.
  • I’m glad i get what geomests are now lmaaooo
  • oh, this isn’t going to go over well. are they going to force her to move this object?
  • it’s amazing to me that Syenite still pities these people and empathizes with them enough to give them an option that helps them and hurts her, given that none of them would do the same for her or another orogene.
  • wait, did Alabaster grab her again?
  • i am afraid to turn the page HOW IS IT MOVING ON ITS OWN
  • what the fuck
  • an obelisk???
  • WHAT
  • THE
  • FUCK
  • what knowledge??? what is she talking about????
  • wait stone eater. like hoa???

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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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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