In the fifth chapter of The Stone Sky, Essun reunites with an unexpected person from her past. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Broken Earth.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of violence, trauma, slavery, body horror
Holy shit, this was so shocking. There is not even a shred of me that ever expected Essun to reunite with any of the orogenes she trained with as Damaya at the Fulcrum. Ever! In fact, I just assumed most of those characters were long dead. If she didn’t run into them as an agent of the Fulcrum, why would she do so now, in the midst of this terrible Season?
But I love what this means for her and how Maxixe’s appearance forces Essun into an examination of her journey. Essun isn’t even the same person from the beginning of the last book, let alone her time as a child being subjugated and brainwashed by the Fulcrum. We can see evidence of her very recent change—in the span of a few hours, actually—in the first part of this chapter. She was fresh off of her uncomfortable conversation with Ykka about how she was completely resistant to considering herself as part of a community. Jemisin has grounded us in the reasons for that in the past books, which makes one specific part of this so meaningful. I admit that there’s a more explicit motivation for Essun’s choice to hold back on her orogeny: so that the magic does not turn too much of her body to stone. But I also saw her defaulting to Ykka and letting her lead. She does not attack until necessary, and she does not interrupt Ykka when Ykka reaches out to the unknown orogene who is somewhere in this terrible forest. Essun sees everyone as a threat, and she probably did here, too. But she waits. She lets Ykka take the lead, and even after the group is swiftly taken care of (including with a stunning appearance by Danel), look how Essun reacts! It’s a struggle, yes, and she’s even correcting her language in real time, but she is starting to see herself as part of a group, rather than an outlier.
I’m sure it helped that the lone orogene in this forest was someone she knew. Still, I don’t want to discount how important this was. When Essun is reunited with Maxixe… y’all. Actually. That part where she didn’t know it was Maxixe, and she tries to reach this orogene by recalling the awful things the Fulcrum did? That was one of like twenty things in this chapter that RUINED me. Actually, this one detail did me IN:
“Did they—shit.” The hand that Schaffa once broke, your right hand, is somewhere in whatever passes for Hoa’s belly. You still feel it, though. Phantom ache across phantom bones.
Can N.K. Jemisin just let me LIVE. Holy shit! This line is so blunt, and yet it’s got this exacting pain to it, too. I know can’t remember if it was one of you lovely commenters or a friend of mine who said that her prose is like a blunt tool and a scalpel at the same time, but that is not my original thought AND IT ALSO IS 100% CORRECT. That specificity is what makes Maxixe truly realize who he is talking to, but not before an absolutely stunning and unnerving sequence in which Essun’s words cause Maxixe’s torus to explode. From there, Essun has to use her magic, and, in the first instance we’ve ever experienced this in real time, Essun controls where the magic turns her body to stone. It’s a fascinating logic to watch unfold, but it was hard for me to be as detached as she was. Granted, it was happening to her, and she had to be! But the whole sequence was some body horror nightmare shit.
Which is why I loved how intimate the scene was that followed it. The second half of chapter five is devoted to this reunion. It was strange. Emotional. Very, very painful. I don’t like to make statements about what Jemisin intended with her work, and even when I’ve talked about the real-world implications, I of course can be completely wrong about them. But so much of this book feels like a direct conversation with the legacy of chattel slavery in North America. As Jemisin described what was left of Maxixe’s body, I thought about how brutalized enslaved people were because of that institution. I think there’s another layer to the comment about bullying to. How often did institutions like this turn people against one another? Clearly, Maxixe, like Essun, now realizes as an adult just how manipulated they were. Just how insidious the Fulcrum was. It’s not that they were ignorant of how bad it was at the time. Yes, Damaya herself had a lot of hope in ways that she would not have as she got older. But even then, she knew, didn’t she? She knew it was wrong on some level.
And then we’ve got two survivors, decades after they crossed paths at the Fulcrum in Yumenes, who realize that both of them have paid immense costs just for being who they are. That’s one thing Jemisin plays with here. Look at how Maxixe reacts when Essun tells him that Ykka is the headwoman of the comm. He laughs! And that’s even given the context that in his own way, he’s got a comm. Sort of. That arrangement is precarious:
“I’m doing the same thing,” he drawls. With his chin, he points toward his gathered people. “These rusters stick with me because I’m not going to eat them. They don’t fuck with me because I’ll kill them. There: peaceful coexistence.”
But it’s not the same thing, is it? As Essun later points out, the people with Maxixe are simply those who could tolerate living with an orogene. Ykka is far more intentional about this comm she’s forming. Still, Maxixe has doubts, and they mirror the doubts that Essun has expressed as recently as the beginning of this book. Maxixe asks a question that is so cutting, it hurt ME, and it wasn’t even directed my way!
“How much did it cost you, to join them?”
The ironic thing is that Essun has been struggling with the very idea that she “joined” this comm. And she even runs through the “cost” she paid and tries her best to reason that what she did simply wasn’t the same thing as the cost that Maxixe paid. But isn’t that the point? Hasn’t the problem been that Essun can’t break out of the line of thinking that ends with “you or them”? That dichotomy has kept her alive; as I said before, it was a survival mechanism that worked in the past.
Now, she’s trying to change that mentality. But it’s so fucking hard, after everything they’ve been through, after all the violence enacted upon them, after all the violence they were expected to enact on others. She uses the collective “we” when she speaks of the comm, which is a HUGE deal to me. She also tries so damn much to resist practicality and pessimism, even when it’s probably very likely that Ykka won’t want to accept all these people into the comm if they can’t contribute. Look, maybe Essun’s hope is terribly misguided, but I think the fact that she has any in this situation is yet another sign that she’s trying to view things differently. Genuinely trying. Even I couldn’t help but feel hope by the end of the chapter. Look how Jemisin ends this:
But. Then he shifts his weight and lifts his right hand. The skin is thick as horn, beyond callused, and filthy. You wipe your hand on your pants without thinking, after. His people chuckle at this.
Then you lead him back toward Castrima, into the light.
Is she leading him out of a darkness, both literal and metaphorical? I felt like the use of the word “lead” was an intentional play on words here, a way for Jemisin to signal that maybe Essun was ready to lead, to think of herself as part of an actual group.
Maybe that hope is ill-spent, but I’m clinging to it.
- nope, no thanks to that first line
- love the way hjarka sleeps.
- oh, ykka, that is a BOLD thing to say. but so in line with her character!
- yeah, all of this is strange and deeply unpleasant!!!
- haha holy shit! danel!!!!! omg!!!!
- I am… very nervous about the orogene who isn’t moving. I already know something is wrong but like… that’s my default state reading this book. still! I hate this! everything is terrifying!
- every new detail makes this worse!!! why is this orogene up there? why aren’t they reacting????
- OH. HOA ATE THE HAND THAT SCHAFFA BROKE. why does that hurt me so BADLY.
- oohhhhhh I love all the bits about magic vs orogeny!!!!
- choosing which part of essun’s body turns to stone… holy shit.
- damaya??? what? what?
- oh my god
- oh my fucking god
- HOLY SHIT MAXIXE????????
- YOU’RE KIDDING
- OH. THIS IS AWFUL. WHAT HAPPENED TO ARKETE
- oh, the importance of names. I love that.
- oh my god he went to node stations. he fucking KNEW what they did to orogenes. THIS IS BREAKING ME.
- LOOK AT ESSUN INCLUDING HERSELF IN THE COMM.
- OH MY GOD there were TWO comms in the forest????
- “How much did it cost you, to join them?” wow, that one question GUTTED me.
- there is something so crushing and so intimate about these two orogenes talking about trauma and cost and community
- this chapter… was so much. SO MUCH.
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