We’ve reached the end! Of N.K. Jemisin’s Fifth Season, that is—the world of the novel hasn’t quite ended. Not yet, anyway. (The second book of the “Broken Earth” trilogy, The Obelisk Gate, comes out in August. We’re preordering five copies.) And this is just the beginning of WIRED Book Club, of course. We’ll be announcing our second selection later this week. But until then, we have lots to discuss. What a ride, right? As always, we invite you to read our thoughts and respond in the comments. And this time, please include questions you might want to ask Jemisin about the novel. We’ll be chatting with her June 4 and would love to bring some of you into the conversation. Thanks for reading, and let’s keep it up!
So Damaya Is Syenite Is Essun After All. Are We Satisfied?
Jay Dayrit, Editorial Operations Manager: I found specific moments satisfying—like when Damaya picks the name Syenite, or when Alabaster stumbles with Essun’s name because he only knows her as Syenite—all of which lent credence to the unanchored identity of the main character in the chapters devoted to Essun. That said, the conceit felt a little too obvious midway through the book, and I found myself yearning for Essun to be someone other than an older Syenite, someone unexpected. Nassun, maybe, a whole generation later? I don’t know how that would have worked, but I would have appreciated a less predictable outcome. Speaking of Nassun, I was legitimately bummed that Essun never finds find her. Well, let’s not say “never.” I was unsatisfied that Essun doesn’t find Nassun by the end of the book and doesn’t get to exact revenge on the feckless Jija. Seems like a deliberate loose end though.
Jason Kehe, Associate Editor: I was extremely satisfied, and I don’t think it was that obvious (even though we’ve been discussing it for weeks). I always liked the theory, but I got hung up on the fact that Essun was always, as you say, a bit unanchored—virtually personality-less, in fact. That bothered me. Damaya felt like a confused kid, Syen felt like an angry young adult, and then Essun was … blank. But of course she was—her world ended and she basically slipped into a dissociative state for a decade to survive. I love when Syen starts reasserting herself. “How the rust did you miss that?” Essun wonders near the end. That’s so Syen; Essun didn’t talk or think like that. Which probably explains WHY she missed it (“it” being Hoa’s not breathing). She wasn’t herself. Also, it’s pretty sad when Alabaster asks her if she’s figured out the obelisks yet, because she probably hasn’t worked on her orogeny at all in years.
Dayrit: Oh, now I’m sad. I had not realized how long she had gone without using her powers, how much they have weakened.
So Let’s Talk About the Threesome.
Fallon: Oh, my ears and whiskers. I thought it was tres sexy. And such a deliberate contrast to the totally meh sex that people have when they’re inside the boundaries of the Fulcrum.
Dayrit: I’m gonna have to disagree with Sarah. One would think a bisexual three-way involving a character who should be played by Jason Momoa in the screen adaptation would be all kinds of hot, but I found their throuple forced, too much of a panacea to all that ails Syenite and Alabaster’s arranged marriage. Now their relationship I found interesting, their misaligned personalities, the bitchy interactions, the resentful sex, and yet they worked well together when exercising orogeny. Some good tension there, most of which dissipated with the introduction of Innon. I suppose I’m old-fashioned that way. I wanted Syenite and Alabaster to find happiness—or at the very least, contentment—on their own. I was rooting for the two of them, not so much for the three.
Katie Palmer, Senior Associate Editor: Jay, perfect casting. Please let this happen. I felt like that ease, that feeling of inevitability, was an important part of the story, though. There’s no way that Syenite and Alabaster could ever be content together because they’ve been so fundamentally broken by the Fulcrum and its training. Innon is a momentary respite, a way for them to reclaim some of what they’ve lost. And that provided tension in the relationship for me, even as it falls into place naturally, sexually. This is still all about power. They’re using him to satisfy their needs just as he’s using them to support his continued existence on the island.
Peter Rubin, Senior Editor: Agreed, Katie; the triangle arrangement works because of the stability it lends. Also, if you want to get Freudian about it, it’s a perfect structuralist triunion: Innon-Alabaster-Syneite::id-superego-ego. Then again, sometimes an obelisk is just an obelisk, right?
Why Is the Underground Comm So Ominous?
Palmer: This is the moment where I’ll probably unite with Jay and say enough. It bothers me to no end that the comm supposedly runs off of orogeny … because it’s not a magical power or energy, at least as I’ve come to appreciate it. It’s a skill, one that redirects and channels energy from the earth, and it doesn’t make sense for a place to need orogenes to run its air purification systems and whatnot. I hope that Ykka’s explanation will prove wrong—and I trust that’s possible, because I see no reason to trust anything Ykka says. If the comm started working when the orogenes showed up, and orogenes increasingly seem to have a sort of familiar stone-eater around, why couldn’t it be the stone-eaters keeping things running somehow?
Who/What Is Hoa?
Kehe: The narrator …?
Palmer: I’m not sure about the narrator, because at one point Hoa’s birth (or whatever it is) is described in the same voice (right? maybe?). This is an idea without much behind it but I’m going to put it here in case I’m right and then it’ll be awesome later … could Hoa be Corundum? Coru is gone, but his death is still somewhat of a mystery, and Hoa is the only stone eater whose inception we’ve seen … and it happens after Coru’s death. We don’t know exactly how much time has passed since Syenite became Essun, but Hoa’s perceived human age seems to be in the right range. And … the crystals that Hoa eats, the ones he says are made of him? They’re red, the color of corundum. That’s all I’ve got.
Fallon: I’d cosign to this idea. After all, Hoa finds her right at the moment that Corundum bobs up to the surface of the water dead. At least, I assume he’s dead. Also, this circumstance is such an echo of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. You know, how she kills her daughter when the slavers come to catch her and the whole book is basically the baby’s ghost come back to be with her mother. I’d love Jemisin to elaborate on the relationship between the two books.
Kehe: Whoa, could be! (And nice observation, Sarah. For separate reasons, I want to ask her if there are any echoes of Parable of a Sower.) Though I am a BIT skeptical—can a baby be turned into a stone-eater overnight? And then imbued with sensitivity and intelligence enough to track his mother? Also, a stone-eater/orogene? Is that possible? My sense is Hoa is much older than he lets on (or appears)—we know stone-eaters are basically ancient. In fact, I still maintain he’s the omniscient narrator. He’s the prologue, the interludes, he’s talking to “you” (Essun), etc. This is his story. In the second-to-last chapter, he says (in the first-person, for the first time): “I introduced myself to her eventually, finally, ten years later, as she left Tirimo. It’s not the way we usually do things, of course; it is not the relationship with her kind that we normally seek. But she is—was—special. You were, are, special.” Wouldn’t the italicized “you” (Jemisin’s emphasis) here be Essun? Could he really be talking about his own mother here? Then again, that slightly chiastic inversion of past/present in those two sentences—from is/was special to were/are special—is odd. Perhaps “she” is Essun, and “you” (whoever Hoa’s talking to) is someone else. The universal italicized You? Who are we?!
Palmer: But if Hoa is Coru, then of course he would be part Essun—he is she is you. And who’s the most special of all but Coru, the child with the immense power that came from the merger of a four- and ten-ringer?
Kehe: “He is she is you.” Fabulous. I give up.
Dayrit: Yeah, who the hell is Hoa? Spat forth from a geode, man-child able to literally petrify animals, lover of rock candy, apparent stalker; “I introduce myself to her eventually, finally, ten years later, as she left Tirimo. It’s not the way we usually do things, of course.” We? Usually? He’s a stone eater, for sure, but Hoa is able to pass amongst the humans relatively unnoticed. He might be Coru reincarnated, but I suspect he’s the offspring of a stone eater and Alabaster, conceived while Alabaster was leading a subterranean existence, however reproduction works down there. His purpose though? A guide for Essun, to lead her to Nassun … eventually, but first he must reunite Essun and Alabaster.
Are the Stone-eaters Good or Bad?
Kehe: Hold it: Do stone-eaters eat humans they’ve turned into stone? Is that what’s happening when Essun notices tooth marks on Alabaster’s crumbly petrifying flesh? “Those are tooth marks. You glance up at Antimony again, and think of a diamond smile.” Aaaah! Is that why the rock-food is “venous red”? Does human blood flow through it? Is that why they can take on human form? Because they’re ingesting people?! That said, there does seem to be something symbiotic about the relationship between a stone-eater and its orogene. Antimony chose Alabaster, somehow, much as Hoa chose Essun. Do the orogenes get anything out of this arrangement? Perhaps protection? When Essun and Hoa visit Alabaster and Antimony, Hoa and Antimony have a bit of a face-off. They seem to be guarding their people/pets (even as they uh, turn them into rocks and consume them).
Dayrit: Like the earth itself—they are, after all, made of earth—their agenda doesn’t fit conveniently within the moral code of the rest of the inhabitants. I theorize stone-eaters are there to protect the planet by ridding it of its parasites, every other living thing on the surface. Unable to do this alone, they recruit the powerful yet disenfranchised orogenes, who had been so mistreated they’ve become agnostic to everyone else’s fate, even their own. For the people, stone-eaters are bad. For the planet, stone eaters are good. They’re stone-cold environmentalists!
Have We Ever Heard of Something Called a Moon?
Palmer: Vindicated! Well, at least Chad from the comments last week is. When I first read the interlude, the lack of a moon definitely stuck out to me, but not enough to note it in the conversation. The fact that the omniscient narrator spoke of celestial bodies and yet nothing in between those and the inexplicably levitating obelisks was strange. Now I wonder if there’s a relationship between the moon and the obelisks and the orogenes’ power. So much of the activity we’ve seen could be considered strange permutations of gravity rather than some mystical earth-energy. (I don’t know why skillfully manipulating gravity is more attractive to me than skillfully manipulating thermodynamics.)
Dayrit: Yes, Chad! Chad Brubaker made the following observation: “As soon as I read this passage, the answer jumped out at me—the moon. If something is missing, the litany of celestial objects seen in the sky seems to exclude only this one thing.” I will readily admit I, like the people of the Stillness, spent so much time paying attention to the ground that I completely dismissed the heavens, so when at the end of the book, Alabaster asks Essun if she’s heard of something called a moon, my brain imploded, and I now crave the next book in the series. What become of the moon? Where is Nassun? Are we sure Jija really killed Uche? Shoutout to Chad! And shoutout to N.K. Jemisin for turning me into a fan of genre fiction.
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