In the seventh chapter of The Stone Sky, Essun learns the truth of her daughter. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Broken Earth.
Trigger Warning: For extended discussion of death, grief, and abuse, particularly abuse of a child
It’s risky saying this, as there’s so much more of this book to read—I’m not even at the halfway point!—but I think this is gonna be my favorite chapter of this book. It is stunning in its execution, both on a prose level and the masterful development of Essun. So many various threads come together here to weave a story of guilt, regret, grief, and… closure. Which is a difficult, thorny subject, one made all the more difficult when it’s mixed up in grief.
Let’s discuss. I expected that a bulk of this chapter would deal with Essun’s attempt to convince Ykka to allow Maxixe and his people to stay within the comm, but the entire conflict is resolved—at least for the time being—in just a single page. Ykka is, as always, practical with her decision-making process. Maxixe is valuable because he has something to contribute, and while it’ll be challenging to deal with some of the more intense injuries, these people can still give to the whole. And at the end of the day, that’s what Ykka is looking for.
Which leaves Essun… where? What is she supposed to do now? Head to Rennanis and then… what? Jemisin so brilliantly captures how aimless Essun is at this very moment, and it’s interestingly tied to her own mortality. That’s something that doesn’t become more explicit until the end of the chapter, but even here, at the beginning? Essun is trying to compartmentalize how her body is turning to stone. Because what’s left unsaid here? Essun is hurtling towards her own death.
I don’t think we can discount that as an influence on her decision to ask Hoa to take her to Jekity/Found Moon. Again, it might not be there on the page, but so much of this chapter is a rumination on death! Essun is dying; the world is dying; Nassun is most likely going to die when she tries to open the Obelisk Gate. Essun knows that she doesn’t have much time left, and so her concern is getting to Nassun to stop her from doing something that could end her life.
Yet there’s so much more to it. Like I did initially, I saw Steel’s behavior as manipulative, and I’ve long been trying to determine just how the stone eaters as a whole view other humans. We know it’s a complicated relationship, and hell, Hoa has outright told us that before.
But look how this changes. How she changes. The first time it happens is when Hoa reveals that Jija is dead. Prior to this, she was pissed at Hoa and needed time away from him. Yet once Hoa tells her that Nassun intentionally killed Jija, Essun’s whole demeanor changes. Gone is her anger over Hoa; gone is her need to be away from him. Instead, that concern from before becomes immediate. She requests to be taken to the place where Jija died. Despite that Hoa is actually narrating everything, I found it fascinating that he didn’t interject to say why he agreed to do this for Essun. I have a theory, though. What if he knew this would help her move on? What if he gave her these answers so that she’d stop trying to focus on things other than the “mission” she was on?
Ugh, there’s a thought: What if he did all this to manipulate her to a place where she was easier to guide and control?
All that being said: I still think it was important for Essun to go through this experience. For one: she gets to see Fire-Under-Earth. I know it was only a flash, but it still felt like a big moment in the series. Once she’s in Jekity, though… fuck, y’all. If you’ll look to the notes below that I made while reading through this the first time, you’ll see that I even called the major twist: that Essun was going to find out that Nassun was with Schaffa. It still didn’t help make this any less shocking. Jemisin makes a haunting writing choice. Despite that Hoa probably knew most of what the random comm member told Essun, she still learns about Nassun, Found Moon, and Schaffa from a deeply bigoted person. The unnamed young man has no filter whatsoever, though it’s because he immediately clocks Essun as a Guardian, not as an orogene. There’s a brilliant metaphorical representation of something some of us have experienced: when we “pass” as a member of a majority group, and another person feels free to be bigoted towards us. Every so often, someone thinks I am straight. It.. baffles me. I seriously think you would know if you spoke to me for sixty second, and I’ve pretty much never been able to hide that I’m queer. And yet, in the rare chance that I’m not read as queer, there have been moments where people said homophobic shit to me because they thought I’d be in solidarity with them! Always fun to let them know they’re talking to a member of the same group they’re slandering. (And by “fun,” I mean, “terrifying and potentially dangerous.”)
Unsurprisingly, Essun doesn’t reveal that she’s an orogene. Not just for her safety, though, but also so that this young man will give her information. As she presses him, he tells her everything she wanted to know, stuff she didn’t want to hear, and lots that she didn’t even know to ask for. Really, though, it’s the second the man uttered Schaffa’s name that jettisoned this chapter to new heights. Maybe Steel is manipulating Nassun, but Schaffa? Oh, that’s so much worse for Essun! I am curious: Do the stone eaters know that Guardians can be corrupted by Evil Earth? If so, why wouldn’t Hoa tell Essun that? (Of course, now I’m thinking about her line to him earlier in the chapter: They withhold so much information that it’s basically lying.)
Anyway, maybe there’s something to that; maybe not. I am glad, though, that Hoa’s narration sticks so close to Essun as the moments as she’s delivered one shock after another: Schaffa has her daughter; Nassun terrified the locals; Nassun turned her father to stone and shattered him into colorful pieces. Gods, I still can’t get over that moment where Hoa breaks through the second person to offer sympathy, to wish he could comfort Essun through the reverberations of a tuner. It’s so fucking intimate, and that made this so much sadder?
But not as crushing as Jemisin tying the loop closed. We’ve seen how Nassun viewed her mother and how she was raised. We know exactly why she’s come to view Schaffa as a father figure and why she wants to be a “better” daughter to him than she was to Jija. (That still hurts to type.) It would have been easy to turn this into a simple case of motherly revenge and protection. Essun could have ordered Hoa to take her to Nassun so she could kill Schaffa and rescue Nassun. Like, that seemed like the story being set up here! There’s an obvious source of conflict because we, the reader, know something that Essun doesn’t.
But this book has upended my expectations so many times. Here, it began when the man says that he rarely sees Guardians being affectionate with orogenes:
The hand that you don’t have twinges again, but it is more tentative this time and not the throb of before. Because… he wouldn’t have had to break Nassun’s hand, would he? No, no, no. You did that to her yourself. And Uche was another broken hand, inflicted by Jija. Schaffa protected her from Jija. Schaffa was affectionate with her, as you struggled to be. And now everything inside you shudders at the thought that follows, and it takes the willpower that has destroyed cities to keep this shudder internal, but…
How much more welcome would a Guardian’s conditional, predictable love have been to Nassun, after her parents’ unconditional love had betrayed her again and again?
Again, look at how many plot threads are within this tapestry of abuse, grief, oppression, repression, and love. So very many bits and pieces of these people are woven together, and it’s haunting. It’s haunting because of the tragedy of it all. Essun never would have had to behave like she did if the Stillness didn’t despise orogenes, didn’t demand their obedience, didn’t kill them immediately after they required their unique abilities. As she so succinctly puts it for the Jekity man:
“One person’s normal is another person’s Shattering.” Your face aches from smiling. There is an art to smiling in a way that others will believe, and you’re terrible at it. “Would’ve been nice if we could’ve all had normal, of course, but not enough people wanted to share. So now we all burn.”
This is a reckoning. The world has pitched into this awful maw of darkness not out of random chance or because of forces out of control. No, the people of the Stillness did this. They were warned repeatedly, and the pushed on, and now look at the state of affairs.
Like I said below: Wow, that’s uncomfortable to read in 2020.
Yet in this moment, Essun tries her hardest to understand her daughter. Why would she go along with a man like Schaffa? For many reasons. The stability. The affection. Essun even realizes that she raised her daughter to be her. And oh gods, that took me back to Damaya’s scenes in The Fifth Season. Wasn’t there a similar “love” there, though the context was different? Essun still doesn’t know about the contamination complication, so it makes sense that she thinks Schaffa is just doing the same thing. But Essun is also willing to turn that critical lens on herself:
You didn’t save her from Jija. You haven’t been there when she’s needed you, here at the literal end of the world. How dare you presume to protect her? Gray Man and Schaffa; she has found her own, better, protectors. She has found the strength to protect herself.
You are so very proud of her. And you don’t dare go anywhere near her, ever again.
Simply put: This is not where I saw Essun’s story going, but it makes so much sense. A deeply upsetting, depressing sense, but still exactly what fits her character. Which forces the reader to ask a new question: If she’s going to give up on Nassun in this context, what is Essun supposed to do now? This motivation had largely been driving her up to this point! So… now what?
Two things. One, there’s that gut-wrenching moment where Essun, stripped of this drive, thinks about death and how it’s always surrounded her life. Indeed, The Broken Earth is as much about the death of children as it is about orogeny. It’s also specifically about loss, and this chapter made me reflect on how many times Essun has lost… well, everything. She lost her family when Schaffa took her away. She lost Meov and Innon and Corundum. She lost Uche. She lost Jija. She lost Alabaster. She lost safety and structure and hope.
But here’s one thing she can’t ever lose: Hoa.
“It’s safe to love you,” you murmur, in startled realization.
I admit that I have a fear, one I’m talking about in therapy but largely not dealing with my not putting myself out there. I already lost someone I was in love with. What if it happens again? And so, these last couple pages of chapter seven stung in a uniquely painful way. Love isn’t safe from mortality, and that’s something we have to accept. But maybe Essun, in whatever time she has left, doesn’t have to, at least not in this context.
It’s those final lines, though, that felt like a message through the ether. How do you do this? How to keep going on, amidst heartbreak and loss and death and grief? Hoa’s had no choice. He can’t really die, so he had to figure out a way to persist.
“Move forward,” Hoa says.
It’s as poignant a message as I can imagine. I still wonder, though: What is that going to mean for Essun?
- hey, this chapter title ISN’T a nightmare, wow
- HEY THE FIRST LINE IS NICE??? A NICE THING IS HAPPENING???
- oh. that whole bit about alabaster… ouch.
- WHEW, ESSUN’S REASONING FOR STAYING WITH CASTRIMA. nevermind, we’re back to hurting again.
- “she’ll stop soon” yeah, but hoa, you aren’t telling essun WHY she would be stopping.
- nope, nevermind, he’s telling her
- oh wow this just got… very real
- OH LORD, THEY’RE ACKNOWLEDGING STEEL
- “There have always been those who use despair and desperation as weapons.” HEY HI, THIS IS. THIS IS TOO MUCH TO READ ON OCTOBER 9, 2020. IT IS SO ON THE NOSE.
- LKASDJF;DLSKFJAS;LDKFJ JIJA. HOLY SHIT. WHY. WHY DID HE TELL HER THAT RIGHT THEN
- oh my god, that aside? Where Hoa breaks the narration? INCREDIBLE.
- this whole sequence is written so BEAUTIFULLY. I mean, it hurts, but the prose is STUNNING.
- why is he telling her to close her eyes. I’M AFRAID.
- OH. THAT’S WHY.
- THE ACTUAL FIRE-UNDER-EARTH.
- IT JUST HIT ME
- y’all is she gonna find out about schaffa
- “This sorry collection of shacks doesn’t fit the ideology.” YOU ARE SO CLOSE, ESSUN, YET SO FAR FROM THE TRUTH.
- oh no, a person from Jekity, this will not go well. I JUST KNOW IT.
- ANOTHER GUARDIAN
- IT’S GONNA HAPPEN
- I AM FREAKING OUT, Y’ALL.
- it happened
- IT FUCKING HAPPENED
- I AM SCREAMING
- I CALLED IT AND I REGRET IT
- I almost can’t believe what he just said to essun but also… yeah, that’s what stills believe.
- this chapter is ruining my whole life
- A PILE
- OF RUBBLE
- OH MY GOD
- “Jija used to keep one of those near the house back in Tirimo” hate to break it to you, essun, but now he IS one of those
- this is too much
- HOA’S ASIDE. WISHING HE WAS STILL FLESH.
- “It’s just that love and hate aren’t mutually exclusive, as I first learned so very long ago.” hey, I’ve been utterly murdered by this book
- “somebody raised her right” JUST… JUST STOP. EVERYTHING HURTS.
- ESSUN REALIZING THAT SHE ALREADY INSTALLED FEAR IN HER DAUGHTER SO SCHAFFA WOULDN’T HAVE TO.
- holy shit. essun realizing why schaffa would be a good source of “love” for nassun.
- “Can I ask you a question?” No. “Yes.” I LAUGHED SO HARD.
- the passage where essun tells this man why the world has become what it is… electrifying. perhaps the best summary of this whole fucking series.
- I am truly in awe of this
- “It’s safe to love you.” THIS ENTIRE CHAPTER IS THE MOST POINTED DEVASTATION I HAVE EVER EXPERIENCED.
- OKAY I am actually crying now. wow, that hit me so hard, y’all.
- move forward. wow. I’m bawling.
- I think I needed to hear that.
- OH FUCK, THE NOTE AT THE END. HE OPENED THE OBELISK GATE. A STONE EATER NABBED HIM. who was that???????
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