In the eighth chapter of The Stone Sky, Nassun descends into a forgotten world. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Broken Earth.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of slavery, abuse.
HOLY SHIT THIS WAS SO FUCKING GOOD. Oh my god, now I appreciate the Syl Anagist chapters even more than I already did because they were preparing me for THIS. There’s so much here that would have been utterly confusing had I not known what the Stillness once looked like. And what grand imagery, y’all. Syl Anagist was once alive, both in the sense of its inhabitants and the literal construction of its buildings. It was a life of hubris, one that ultimately caused its downfall and the parade of darkness and oppression that came after it, but it was life nonetheless. That makes Nassun’s trip underground all the more haunting. I am operating under the assumption that Nassun and Schaffa are inside one of the nodes of Syl Anagist. We know it was a massive interconnected city (not separate ones) that spread all over the earth; we know they were each powered by plutonic engines and obelisks. (I know that’s a very simplistic summary, but hopefully, you know what I mean.) What we didn’t know was where that power came from.
I think this chapter just told us. Magic. The silver. And ultimately, who possessed the silver in the time of Syl Anagist? I bet we’ll find out… it was the tuners.
Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. Holy shit, this chapter is ridiculously suspenseful? It absolutely fulfills one of my FAVORITE horror tropes, one you tend to find more often in speculative fiction: entering a long abandoned space that is completely and totally cursed, either literally and figuratively. In science fiction, it’s the whole abandoned spaceship trope, something I love every time!!! Despite that most of the story beats are exactly the same in every iteration!!!! Why am I like this!!!
The story beats aren’t quite the same in chapter eight of The Stone Sky, but there’s still a wonderful use of dread as Nassun and Schaffa descend into the unknown. Yet even in that idea, there’s a subversion. It’s an unknown to Nassun; she’s obviously never been here before. It’s an unknown to the reader, since we also don’t know what this place is… INITIALLY. As the details fell into place, I realized we were in the ruins of Syl Anagist, which meant that the reader knew more than Nassun. And then there’s Schaffa, who HAS been here. But ever since his contamination and subsequent fight against Evil Earth, he lost most of his memory of his life before. So he does know what this is, but he doesn’t recall the details. He just knows the purpose of it: it is the means of getting to Warrant. Thus, we’ve got three different levels of knowledge operating simultaneously, and Jemisin brilliantly weaves them together to keep us on our toes. To keep us creeped out. To keep us guessing.
It is also, unsurprisingly, a deeply emotional journey, especially since it involves trust. Nassun trusts Schaffa throughout this, even though the descent requires a very basic trust of Steel as well. I love that this follows the chapter wherein Hoa and Essun openly discussed the possibility that Steel was manipulating Nassun. And then here, we see Nassun and Schaffa agreeing that Steel can’t really be trusted at all. So everyone is aware of this! Great! I mean, it doesn’t change Nassun’s motivation, which is to destroy the Earth so that no one ever has to suffer again. But is she in alignment with Steel’s goals? What does that mean for her journey?
I DON’T KNOW, I’M AFRAID.
Let’s talk about this passage, which was so LOUD and IN MY FACE:
Nassun can’t see his face, and must gauge his mood by his broad shoulders. (It bothers her that she does this, watching him constantly for shifts of mood or warnings of tension. It is another thing she learned from Jija. She cannot seem to shed it with Schaffa, or anyone else.)
So, there’s a coping mechanism I developed thanks to abuse. I ALSO DO THIS WITH ALL BODY LANGUAGE. I am coming to understand what this actually is, especially since without therapy, I had convinced myself that I was just too sensitive, that I was imagining these things. But my survival as a kid hinged on being able to anticipate my abuser’s moods, and body language is one of the easier ways to determine it. I also haven’t quite been able to shed it either, but I’m learning to untangle the difference between stuff like this and actual intuition. I don’t need to be on edge all of the time! But that’s why Nassun is like this, and she is astute enough to recognize that this came from her father. She had to do the same thing because at any point, Jija could have hurt her. AND HE DID. REPEATEDLY.
Another very interesting thing revealed here that deals with abuse and power dynamics: Confirmation that the Guardians not only need the silver from orogenes (explaining that “connection” they have with them that we saw in The Fifth Season), but that Guardians go to Warrant during a Season because there are so few orogenes left during a Season. What will they have left to feed off of? I love this so much because it connects so precisely with the greater point that Jemisin leads us to about Guardians, about this world, about exploitation and power. Nassun plays an important role in this because… well, she’s in a space where she can say what she’s thinking without being put in danger. Without retribution! Because it’s not like Damaya didn’t have difficult, complicated questions for Schaffa. But I feel like the context is so, so different! Nassun has… hmm. I don’t know that it’s a freedom, but it kinda is? It’s the literal fucking end of the world, one which Nassun wants to definitively bring about. The Fulcrum is basically gone. So she doesn’t have the infrastructure and the surveillance of that organization watching over her.
Thus, she can say this:
“I don’t understand Guardians. The other kind of Guardian, I mean. I don’t… They’re awful.”
We all know this, but this is a huge moment for her to be able to say that out loud and so succinctly. Then, Jemisin pivots to Schaffa, who responds by saying that in his own fucked up way, he loved orogenes as a means of preventing their genocide. In his bizarre logic, I do understand what he means, even though I have to point out that he was still contributing to the greater system that supported the genocide of orogenes. It’s all spelled out in devastating clarity, too: this was always about denying orogenes their personhood:
“If every orogene is hunted down and slain, and if the neck of every orogene infant born thereafter is wrung, and if every one like me who carries the trait is killed or effectively sterilized, and if even the notion that orogenes are human is denied… that would be genocide. Killing a people, down to the very idea of them as a people.”
WHEW. This was… a lot. Again, this book continues to be uncomfortable in ways Jemisin could not have planned for because this is literally what my country is having to reckon with (and, unsurprisingly, doing a poor job of it) this year. My country’s foundational anti-Blackness is exactly this paragraph. My country’s anti-indigenous foundation is this paragraph. There’s a history of this same thing repeating over and over, in different contexts, with different groups, with a varying power structure, all over the world. And like I said, Schaffa still contributed to this, though the exploitation of the orogenes at the hands of the Guardians was for a slightly different reason. That dehumanization is still there and still key, but it exists to keep orogeny alive:
“We prevent orogeny from disappearing—because in truth, the people of the world would not survive without it. Orogenes are essential. And yet because you are essential, you cannot be permitted to have a choice in the matter. You must be tools—and tools cannot be people. Guardians keep the tool… and to the degree possible, while still retaining the tool’s usefulness, kill the person.”
It’s hard not to see the parallel to chattel slavery, but I also want to point out how key it is that Nassun’s immediate thought is that nothing just happened. They were “made to happen.” People chose this. People designed this. People acted it out. And when you’re talking of a systemic issue like racism in America, for example, and even more specifically about anti-Blackness, it is vital that we understand that this didn’t just “happen.” It didn’t just “come about.” It has always been designed: meticulously, repeatedly, with direct intention.
This shit is not an accident.
And Nassun filters this through her own experience, as an orogene, as a young girl, as someone who does possess a great deal power but is constantly denied life. Just living:
But breathing doesn’t always mean living, and maybe… maybe genocide doesn’t always leave bodies.
What a powerful, powerful moment. Maybe Steel is manipulating Nassun on some level. But if you removed Steel from this entire epiphany of Nassun’s, the epiphany would still stand. It would still be real. So…. “till the world burns,” right?
Oh, this book, y’all.
AND I HAVEN’T EVEN GOTTEN TO THE DEAD CITY. So here’s me looping back to what I was talking about in the beginning: I love so much that in the Syl Anagist chapters, we see this massive city of life, and here, that city isn’t reduced to dust; it’s just so old it has ground down into sand. The decay is everywhere, and I feel like that’s such an apt metaphor for what happened here. Y’all, I think this gives us an idea of what part of the Shattering was like? Maybe? I don’t think the obelisk being dropped is the actual cause, but what if that’s the reason this obelisk fell through the earth and ruptured the crust, sending that wave of magic spurting out to encase the city? Look, even if I’m wrong: IT’S ALL STILL HUBRIS. That’s what this is! And everyone in this city most likely died from it, too.
It’s beautiful in a fucked up way. As I’m going back through this chapter a second time for this review, I’m taken by how often Jemisin lets this discovery fall into dialogue-less narration. That unsaid silence is chilling. Nassun is a fairly chatty character, especially when she’s got questions to ask. It’s brilliant, then, that Nassun doesn’t talk for long stretches of time as she takes everything in, as she sesses new details in this crater/cavern. I LOVE THIS SHIT, WRITING IS SO ENDLESSLY FASCINATING TO ME. It feels like such an intentional choice, you know?
I’m also curious if all the stuff in The Fifth Season around Essun and Tonkee discovering the socket in Main at the Fulcrum is relevant to this. Nassun figures out that an obelisk once sat in this place that powered the rest of the city. So, that stands to reason that the orogenes (or tuners) controlled them in order to feed the plutonic engines with silver, right? (Unless it literally came from the tuners themselves, which… oh, that’s a creepy thought.) What about that line where Schaffa says that the obelisks killed orogenes? That they tried to change people? Oh god, is that why that Guardian said all that weird shit to Damaya? I DON’T KNOW, I’M TRYING TO FIGURE THIS ALL OUT.
And it’s further complicated by the mind-blowing realizations that Nassun has about what it means to be a Guardian, a contaminated Guardian, and Schaffa, because those are three distinct states. Guardians can pull silver from the Earth, which means contaminated ones can, too, but Schaffa can’t. He can only get it from Nassun, which… oh god, that adds a whole new layer to their relationship, doesn’t it? But Jemisin makes a new distinction here as well, one that has precedence within the text, going all the way back to the early part of The Obelisk Gate. Schaffa chose! He made a decision back when he was contaminated, and he makes a conscious choice every day to resist Evil Earth. And that choice is so fucking meaningful in this context because Nassun can tell Schaffa that he’s not a Guardian to her, not with that meaning. He’s her guardian—lowercase!—because he treats her like she’s family. No. He chooses to treat her like she’s family.
So, question that likely won’t be answered until next week’s reviews: Are they going to see Warrant on this trip???
- that chapter title… mmm yeah, gimme the good stuff
- (aka: I’m already losing my shit.)
- “all of this is weird” FUCKING ETERNAL MOOD OF THIS WONDERFUL TRILOGY
- oh wow, abused kid familiarity right there. I DO THE SAME FUCKING THING.
- look, you might THINK those are grasshoppers or cicadas, but I trust NO INSECT in the hellish wasteland
- yeah, I figured that guardians required the silver from orogenes to keep up themselves
- WELL, SHE JUST HIT THE NAIL ON THE HEAD. yes! they are awful!!!!
- oh shit, that definition of genocide is so ON THE NOSE. yes! thats it!
- this… my god. the way schaffa spells it out? the way that it provides a searing indictment of slavery? MY GODS
- “maybe genocide doesn’t always leave bodies” I AM YELLING OH MY GOD
- THIS IS ALL SO CREEPY
- WHO DID ALL THIS????
- oh my god
- is this syl anagist?????
- IF IT’S ALL PETRIFYING
- IT WAS ALL ONCE ALIVE
- THIS HAS TO BE SYL ANAGIST
- OH IT’S NOT SAND
- HI THIS IS A NIGHTMARE
- oh hey… why ISN’T anything new growing here
- “something bad is here” RUN. LEAVE. PLEASE LEAVE
- THAT IS NOT WHO I EXPECTED TO BE DOWN HERE
- OH MY GOD A STATION
- I just… what do I even SAY about all this
- OH. OH IT’S NOT A COLUMN
- what the fuck WHERE DID THE OBELISK GO
- holy shit, so THAT is what happened
- I want y’all to know that I am EXCITED to read the syl anagist chapter next
- okay so we know that there were like… nodes of Syl Anagist? connected centers of one massive city. so this has to be where the engine was! Which makes sense why the sapphire knows it so well
- holy shit, there was magic EVERYWHERE before!
- I imagine his pain is getting worse because he’s getting closer to Evil Earth
- oh god, this is a socket
- I’M SO AFRAID
- WAIT IS SHE SUPPOSED TO FILL THOSE NEGATIVE SPACES
- WITH HER OWN SILVER
- SHE CALLED THE OBELISKS ENGINES
- “something is coming along the track” absolutely the fuck not
- oh. lemme guess: the guardians’ “outside source” was orogenes
- AHHHHHH THE WHOLE BIT ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF CHOICE AHHHHHH
- hell yess THE LINE ABOUT ADULTS BEING WRONG
- holy shit, this chapter.
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