In the thirteenth chapter of The Obelisk Gate, Essun reckons with a mysterious history and her part in it. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Broken Earth.
Trigger Warning: For body horror, gore, and references to slavery
I am really loving how much of The Broken Earth is about reckoning with the past. Part of that contributes to a plot that feels like a mystery, something I’ve referred to and wrote about before, but I wouldn’t qualify this book or the previous as a mystery. I see this all as the characters dealing with a world they inherited and the choices they make as they discover what it really is. Who seeks to destroy it all? Who seeks to uplift it? Who cares about maintaining the status quo, and who is harmed by that status quo?
And at the center of Essun’s story in The Obelisk Gate is a relic, and it’s one of the few that is referenced in the title to this chapter. She now lives in a place that’s a leftover from a time long past. Deadcivs are everywhere in the Stillness, but I adore how much this book is concerned with figuring out why they ever existed in the first place.
While I’ll talk about the more literal relics later, I wanted to start with a more figurative relic that Essun contends with: the training provided to her by the Fulcrum. This chapter opens with one of the first lessons we’ve seen Essun give the orogene children of Castrima. It was fascinating to me that she had to adapt her teaching because of the circumstances. I honestly expected her to just replicate the teaching she received in the Fulcrum, but there’s no luxury here. These kids need to be trained fast. And thus, Essun relies on a different relic: the harmful, painful, and at times cruel training she gave her own daughter out of desperation and fear. It’s heartbreaking to read this because Jemisin has already shown us the ramifications of that training through Nassun’s point of view. We know she desperately wanted a certain kind of love from her mother, but she never got it. Here, from Essun’s point of view, we get to see her contend with what she did:
Once, as you trained Nassun, you told yourself that it did not matter if she hated you by the end of it; she would know your love by her own survival. That never felt right, though, did it? You were gentler with Uche for that reason. And you always meant to apologize to Nassun, later, when she was old enough to understand… Ah, there are so many regrets in you that they spin, heavy as compressed iron, at your core.
And I appreciated so much that this was unpacked on the page. Essun demonstrates an awareness that has come about from time and absence. It’s only now, as Nassun is far, far away from her (and I should note that Essun doesn’t even know if Nassun is alive anymore), that Essun is coming to accept this part of her. It’s a relic of her previous life.
But so is Alabaster in a way, isn’t he? At the start of this chapter, we’re reminded again that Essun has moved from one life to another, from one name to another, each time forced to reinvent herself. Damaya. Syenite. Essun. Allia. Meov. Tirimo. Castrima. Alabaster was a vital presence in Essun’s life, but only for a while. Now that he’s reappeared a decade after Antimony took him into the Earth, he is a relic of a life she once had. One of the most heartbreaking things about this chapter is the painful way in which Alabaster and Essun reckon with that absence. They have always had an odd, non-traditional relationship, but I would never claim that it wasn’t based in love. I think they absolutely love one another, and I was fascinated by Essun saying she became hardened without Alabaster. Oh gods, what would she have been like if she’d had another kid with Alabaster in her life? With Innon? Would she have raised Nassun differently? Sometimes, the relics we must cope with are the conditions of the world we’re born into.
There’s also the literal relics, too, and I was so thrilled by Alabaster’s continued talk of the Obelisk Gate, the Guardians, and the history that was kept from everyone. Because it was kept, deliberately so! A great deal of their conversation addressed the fact that orogenes taught by the Fulcrum were taught to only deal with their immediate surroundings:
“The Fulcrum’s methods are a kind of conditioning meant to steer you toward energy redistribution and away from magic. The torus isn’t even necessary—you can gather ambient energy in any number of ways. But that’s how they teach you to direct your awareness down to perform orogeny, never up. Nothing above you matters. Only your immediate surroundings, never father.” He shakes his head to the degree that he can. “It’s amazing, when you think about it. Everyone in the Stillness is like this. Never mind what’s in the oceans, never mind what’s in the sky; never look at your own horizon and wonder what’s beyond it. We’ve spent centuries making fun of the astromests for their crackpot theories, but what we really found incredible was that they ever bothered to look up to formulate them.”
On a literal level, this is an incredible commentary on the worldbuilding within the Stillness. Here, Alabaster has distilled a cultural behavior down to its simplest parts, and it’s not like this is the first time we’ve seen this! I recall that line from the previous book (I believe it was in an interlude?) that asked why no one looked up. I also see how you could read this as a metaphor for what happens in our own world, particularly as an American. We are absolutely raised with an innate selfishness, a sort of pull-yourselves-up-by-the-bootstraps mentality that eschews community and global thinking to hyper-focus our gaze (and our empathy) to only what is immediately around us. I mean.. this might be uncomfortable, but I think that sort of thinking is why my country is in such a horrific mess when it comes to this damn pandemic. I don’t think shaming folks for bad decisions works in a greater sense to shift behavior, and I also don’t want to ignore the massive structural problems with our governments that contributed to it. But I also think we can’t ignore that American individualism and exceptionalism played a part in this! You could also apply this to political movements, to political apathy, too, and it’s like… wow. I literally could write multiple essays just on this one passage alone. IF ONLY I HAD THE TIME.
Anyway, here’s the point where I get to celebrate getting something mostly right: the things inserted into Guardians contaminate them with Evil Earth. So I assume they’re from the Earth, right? Logically, they had to once be a means of making humans… like… what? Agents of Evil Earth? Did someone corrupt these devices in order to create the Guardians we now have in the world? Oh god, all of Schaffa’s chapters make so much more SENSE. He’s constantly been fighting off the Earth inside of him since he was saved. It’s what happened to Guardian Timay, too. And what’s all this talk of Warrant? Is that actually where they go during a Season in order to survive it? We know for certain that Guardians have a long lifespan because of those implants. UGH I NEED TO KNOW MORE. Where did the Guardians actually come from? What was their original purpose? Why did they come to work for the Fulcrum? (I realize now how much I assumed during The Fifth Season that they were always part of the Fulcrum.)
But lets move on to a literal relic, the one that’s actually the largest one of all: the geode community of Castrima. You know that thing where I am certain I know what’s going on and I’m ready to write a whole analysis of a character, and then something in the end completely destroys that theory? Yeah, that’s me and Tonkee. Because I was ready to write about a specific dynamic: Tonkee, as a still, believes that she’s smarter than all the orogenes around her, except for Essun. Actually, she might believe that, too. Point being: as a still, there’s a uncomfortable tension here because I wasn’t sure how much of this was Tonkee’s certainty and how much of it was her upholding the existing anti-orogene beliefs of the Stillness.
And then that Thing happens, and now I’m not sure Tonkee is a still at all.
Before we talk about The Thing, I wanted to delve into the complicated politics and reality of the control room. First of all: it’s confirmed outright that no one truly knows what the fuck most of it is for. (I suspect Alabaster knows more than he’s ever going to admit out loud, but such is the way of Alabaster, right?) Oh, the people who have been in the control have figured out certain controls, but that’s through process of elimination and observation. I don’t know why, but there’s something deeply funny to me about them using specific controls and just… seeing what happens. Like, one of those mechanisms could have been, “Implode the whole place instantly,” but let’s press EVERYTHING. And I also believe that if anyone could decipher more of it, it would be Tonkee.
Yet her obsession over the control room created another problem: She’s not contributing to the comm. And that is a big issue. At this point, she’s given a “portable water-testing device” to Morat, the Innovator caste spokeswoman, and that’s it. That’s just not how things fly in Castrima! This is a comm of usefulness, where each person contributes to the survival of all, and Tonkee seems unwilling to even entertain the idea of helping anyone else. I suppose it’s possible in her own logic that working within the control room could help Castrima, but I mostly suspect that she’s into it for intellectual curiosity. Almost entirely for that, I should say. There’s a brilliant contrast here, too, that I didn’t pick up on until I was writing this review, and it shows us a counter behavior. As the group heads up to the control room, Ykka reveals her backstory as a means of understanding the original inhabitants of Castrima, who must have “respected hard work and adapting under pressure.”
She brings this up and then draws a line between that and her own comm, who discovered she was an orogene at age 15 when she used her abilities to put out a massive forest fire. And when the comm’s leaders argued about what to do with Ykka for three days, she assumed it was because they were either going to kill her or send her off to the Fulcrum.
“At the end of it, I found out the townsfolk had been arguing about how to get me trained. Without letting the Fulcrum on, see.”
It is a stunning reveal, and it matters to the conversation at hand. Ykka’s comm wanted to know how they could work together to survive, and here’s Tonkee, off doing her own thing without a care to Castrima at large. A genuine worry? Tonkee is gonna do something in the control room that wipes everyone out.
So yeah, I was really surprised (pleasantly so!) that while everyone was pissed at Tonkee for being selfish and not considering the comm at large, they also clearly wanted to listen to her, especially Ykka. They don’t immediately kick her out, and both Ykka and Essun constantly ask her questions about what she discovered. Now, do I understand what she’s discovered? OH NO, NOT AT ALL LMAOOOOOO. I mean… potential obelisks? Is this where obelisks can be made? I assumed that was what the sockets were for? Like, they grew in those? But maybe not. Maybe they were created in places like Castrima and then taken to… places with sockets? I don’t know. I don’t know what ANYTHING else is. I don’t know what the metallic shards are, though… shit. Maybe that’s what creates Guardians? LOOK I DON’T KNOW. it’s the only “metallic” thing I’ve seen in the series that interacts with a human body. So maybe? I mean… “mark of their enemy”? We know that’s Evil Earth, and there’s that logo again, the same one that Essun saw near the socket in the Main building.
(And what’s burndown? How did Essun know to say that?)
I suppose that I, like Essun, should have seen what was coming. Because I don’t think Ykka is wrong: Tonkee would absolutely explore the control room and risk destroying everything for her own sake, and that is in direct contradiction to Ykka. Like, in every way. She literally says she would rather never know another thing about Castrima’s control than risk destroying it, and that’s the polar opposite take that Tonkee has. Here’s what I don’t get (well, there’s another thing I don’t get, but hold on for that): Why did she grab one of the iron bits? She did that purposefully before trying to escape the control room. Did she know what it was for? I’m guessing that her hypothesis was wrong because she ends up being completely surprised by what that shard does.
It enters her body.
Look, there’s a lot of mortifying stuff in these books. Like… I still haven’t recovered from the boilbug attack. I HAVEN’T, I REFUSE TO. And this was just… holy shit. It’s horrifying. That thing burrowed under her skin and started crawling up her arm while inside of Tonkee. Can we take a moment, though, and laugh at Hjarka, though?
“I can bite it out.” Hjarka looks up at you. Her sharpened teeth are small razors.
THIS WAS JUST SO FUNNY TO ME. Especially because she’s so serious. She really meant it!
Anyway, I won’t quote or rehash everything of the bloody, body-horror-esque nightmare that unfolds here because it is a LOT, but I have to highlight this part because… what the fuck does it mean???
You weren’t expecting that, here amid the gelid bobble of her cells. Tonkee isn’t turning into stone like Alabaster, and you’ve never sessed magic in any other living creature. Yet here, here in Tonkee, there is something that gleams steadily, silverish and threadlike, coming up through her feet—from where? doesn’t matter—and ending at the iron shard.
So… does the shard feed on a person’s magic? Hell, does this magic mean that Tonkee is an orogene? Or potentially could have been one? I DON’T KNOW. I feel much more certain that the iron shard itself reveals that it has something to do with Earth by saying, “ah; hello, little enemy,” to Essun. I can’t stop thinking about the implants for Guardians. IS THAT WHAT THIS IS?
Also, I can now add “Essun perfectly slicing Tonkee’s arm off and the iron shard wriggling out” to my list of things I will not recover from in this series. Cool. Cool cool cool.
- “just another name” wow, way to throw that whole twist from book one in my FACE
- if it wasn’t clear, I’m still terrified by boilbugs
- oh wow, there are more orogene children than orogene adults. INTERESTING PARALLEL TO FOUND MOON.
- oh, that’s fascinating. essun can’t teach the same way she learned because there isn’t time.
- OH, SHE’S PREPARING THEM FOR THAT.
- it’s interesting that while she also doesn’t necessarily imitate Fulcrum teaching, she does use fear and intimidation.
- oh god she’s unpacking all this on the page!!! love and safety and utility and why she was kinder to uche HELP ME
- also love the unpacking of why the fulcrum taught the way it did!
- ALSO THIS INCREDIBLE METAPHOR FOR THINKING OUTSIDE YOUR OWN WORLD
- “Are you drunk?” LMMMAAAOOOOOO
- OHHH this whole SYSTEM was designed to hide magic.
- you are the best bad influence, alabaster.
- also I’m realizing that the orogenes are kept busy to prevent them from doing exactly this: sitting around with other orogenes and picking apart the system
- OKAY CAN WE SEE WARRANT. is that ACTUALLY where all the guardians go during a season?
- holy shit CURED YOUR GUARDIAN????
- oh my god
- was I right??? DID I GET SOMETHING RIGHT??????
- HOLY SHIT I ACTUALLY GOT SOMETHING RIGHT
- Oh. oh, this DOES hurt.
- OH NO. TONKEE WHAT ARE YOU DOING.
- so what IS this place capable of?
- UMMM YKKA’S BACKSTORY????????????
- I’m so excited to see what’s in this control room
- FULL OF WHAT
- I love that Tonkee just says, “No.”
- I just… love tonkee so much
- I really like that while everyone is deeply annoyed by tonkee, they want to learn from her
- THAT SYMBOL FROM THE SOCKET!!!!!
- OKAY so these were all like… forts? defensive structures???
- OH SHE BROUGHT UP ALLIA
- what is “burndown?”
- oh she literally doesn’t know
- oh no no no what are you doing tonkee!!!
- what the fuck
- what the fuck is happening!!!!!
- I HATE THIS NO THANK YOU FOREVER
- WAIT HOW DOES TONKEE HAVE MAGIC IN HER
- who said that!!!!!!!!
- what the hell is this book!!!!
- oh no
- oh absolutely not
- “Hello, little enemy.”
- I can’t
- I can’t do this
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!
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