The Fifth Season

The Fifth Season

by

N. K. Jemisin

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The Fifth Season: Chapter 12 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The day after Alabaster’s poisoning, Syenite returns to the governor’s mansion alone, telling Asael that Alabaster is sick. Asael is clearly skeptical that Syen will be capable of unblocking the harbor on her own, but Syen forces herself to be polite and explains how difficult her past missions have been and how she excelled at them. Asael quibbles about having to pay for two orogenes if only one is doing the work, and Syen explains that Alabaster is powerful enough that he’ll be able to feel everything she’s doing from his room. And furthermore, he has been quieting all the small earthquakes in the area since their arrival, as a courtesy.
Even after Alabaster’s arguments of the day before, Asael still treats Syenite more like a servant than an honored guest. Syenite continues to resent the fact that people don’t respect her just because she doesn’t wear as many rings as Alabaster, judging her talent entirely on her official ranking as an orogene.
Themes
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Asael still seems uneasy, and Syenite knows that it’s a Fulcrum orogene’s job to make sure that “stills” feel safe and at ease. She has done the opposite of that with Asael. Syen asks about seeing the governor again and decides to double down on Alabaster’s demand to meet him—she now understands “why Alabaster is such an ass about this.” They will be delayed until the governor can find time to meet with them, she insists. When Asael accuses Syen of being petty, Syen turns the situation back on her, asking if their places were reversed—if Asael were a skilled expert assigned to perform a duty crucial to the town’s survival—if she would accept the total lack of hospitality. Asael hasn’t even shaken their hands, Syen notes.
Only by being somewhat patient with Asael and explaining just how badly they’ve been treated does Syenite begin to make the woman understand her own rudeness and prejudice. Like Alabaster and seemingly unlike Fulcrum protocol, Syenite is not willing dehumanize herself just to make stills more comfortable.
Themes
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After a few more analogies, Asael seems to understand why Syenite and Alabaster are so angry. She offers a weak apology but also says that orogenes mustn’t expect “normal” people to know how to deal with them. Syenite says that discomfort is understandable, but rudeness isn’t. Finally, Asael blurts out, “you’re a rogga.” Syen says she’s glad that this is out in the open now and turns to go. As an extra barb, she thanks Asael for their rooms at the inn, especially complimenting the food. Asael finally stands up and says that she will go and speak to the governor.
The prejudice behind all of Asael’s actions reveals its true face here as she blurts out the slur “rogga.” This might be a turning point for Asael personally, having been convinced that she acted wrongly and also perhaps finally seeing herself as the prejudiced person she is, but it has come at the expense of Syenite’s labor and energy. Prejudice can be combatted on an individual level, the passage suggests—but it’s important that the responsibility for the actual work involved falls on the oppressor, not the oppressed.
Themes
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Related Quotes
After a long while, Asael returns with an older woman who introduces herself as Heresmith Leadership Allia. She shakes Syenite’s hand and has a solemn but likeable air about her, which Syen appreciates. Heresmith apologizes that the governor really is busy but says that she is lieutenant governor and assures Syen that Asael will be censured for her rudeness to the orogenes. She even offers to make Asael provide them a free tour of the city, but Syen declines, just wanting the trip to be over already. Now pacified, Syen says that she’d like to take a look at the harbor. She is surprised that Heresmith is coming too, but the older woman reminds her that Allia’s future does depend on Syen’s work after all.
Heresmith seems to genuinely respect Syenite’s humanity and position, or at least is a much better diplomat than Asael is. Syenite can’t help liking her straightforward nature and willingness to apologize.
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At the harbor, Syenite immediately meets a strange obstacle that she’s never encountered before. She can sess the coral on the bottom of the harbor, but she realizes that it has actually grown up on top of some large object. Whatever that thing is, it’s made of a substance that Syen cannot sess it at all—she’s never experienced it before. The obstruction is long and straight, blocking most of the harbor, and it’s clearly heavy, because Syen can feel the compressed earth beneath it.
What was supposed to be a straightforward and easy job suffers a setback here, as Syenite sesses something entirely unfamiliar to her. The work of clearing the harbor was always an afterthought compared to the mission of bearing a child, the crisis at the node station, and then Alabaster’s poisoning. But now, it takes on its own importance as well.
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As Syenite senses all this, she closes her eyes and moves her hands around—this is unnecessary to her orogeny, but she knows that it makes non-orogenes more comfortable if they can see her physically doing something. She then tries to explain to her companions—Heresmith, Asael, and a group of men who look like clerks—what she has discovered. If she clears the coral off of the object it will just grow back in a few decades, she says, so she needs to move the object itself, but she has no idea what it is. She demonstrates with her hands how the object is positioned in the harbor.
Syenite’s attempt to describe her orogeny echoes the book’s task in making invisible processes like orogeny seem vivid and real to readers. The obstructing object is something long and perfectly straight—much like the obelisk that Syenite and Alabaster were inside of—and it’s made of a substance that Syenite has never encountered before.
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The group talk among themselves, trying to figure out how long the coral might have been growing there, and they decide that it must have been only a hundred years. This means that clearing it without moving the object beneath will mean doing the same work again in a century, and the Fulcrum’s fee is already a huge burden to Allia. So, the leaders suggest that Syenite should just move the object. She tries to dissuade them, saying that it could be something dangerous. Instead, she suggests commissioning a study with some geomests to figure out what the object is, and then using orogeny only as a last resort.
Syenite is genuinely trying to help Allia’s leaders do what is best for their city, especially as she recognizes that she is dealing with something entirely inscrutable to her.
Themes
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Heresmith and the others debate among themselves, considering the city’s finances as well as the potential danger of moving the obstruction. One of the men is suspicious of Syenite’s motives, but she retorts that if she were trying to cheat them, she wouldn’t have told them about the mysterious object in the first place and instead just cleared the coral. She then suggests that they could do nothing about the problem—send Syen and Alabaster back to the Fulcrum and get most of their money refunded, then use the extra time and money to relocate Allia to somewhere else. This suggestion horrifies Heresmith, and all the leaders agree that it’s impossible.
Allia’s leaders let their anti-orogene prejudice get in the way of their jobs until Syenite manages to set them straight—again having to use her own arguments and energy to do so. Her final suggestion is perhaps a practical one, but it seems totally impossible to anyone with an attachment to a certain place as one’s home. But during Fifth Seasons, such difficult decisions sometimes need to be made.
Themes
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There now seems to be an agreement among Allia’s leadership that Syenite should go ahead and move the obstruction despite the risks. Asael asks if she is really capable of doing this, which sounds like a challenge to Syenite—one she accepts. She tells the group to stand away from her, and then she “stabs the fulcrum of her power into the earth,” looking for some kind of heat to draw power from. She does this instead of using the town itself, which is full of life that she could use if she needed, but that would mean icing everyone around her.
Syenite finally acts after feeling like Asael is doubting her power, which perhaps makes her more impulsive than she would be otherwise. Syen is now performing orogeny in front of a group of stills, which means that she must remain calm and controlled at all times.
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As Syenite searches around the ocean floor with her orogeny, she encounters the obstructing object itself and suddenly feels herself drawn into an entirely different environment, surrounded by a power that is not her own. It feels similar to what happened with Alabaster the night before, but she can’t sense Alabaster’s presence at all, and the place she’s in now is dark and cold instead of full of crystal light. More foreign power floods into her, and she feels overwhelmed with strength, just barely maintaining control over whatever is affecting her.
If Syenite and Alabaster were somehow inside an obelisk the night before, then that might be what Syenite is accidentally experiencing now—except that it is an obelisk that’s somehow dead or lacking its crystal light. It is still filled with power, however, as Syenite feels herself overwhelmed and strives to stay in control.
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Syenite uses this rush of power to lift the foreign object from the seabed, and then to immediately quiet all the waves displaced by its movement. Having such strength coursing through her feels amazing, until she realizes that the object is now moving beyond her control and continuing to rise up through the water—she had intended for it to just be pushed to the side. The object is clearly moving upwards of its own volition, and suddenly Syen finds herself back in her body on the boardwalk, weak and shaking. Everything around her starts shaking too, sirens go off, and Allia’s leadership immediately flee, leaving Syenite behind.
Nothing is going as planned—Syenite has managed to control the power now surging through her body, but the object itself is now acting of its own free will apart from her own. Fearing an earthquake or tsunami, the people of Allia immediately go into lockdown—and they abandon Syenite, who’ve they’ve tasked with this job despite her objections, as someone entirely without value.
Themes
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Disaster, Violence, and Survival Theme Icon
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Finally, something massive rises from the water, shedding the last of the earth and coral that had covered it in the seabed—it’s an obelisk. This one is different from the amethyst of the night before: it’s garnet-colored, around a mile long, and seems to be cracked in the middle. Some kind of foreign black substance seems to have seeped into the cracks, and Syenite can feel a stutter in the obelisk’s energy where it has been damaged.
Unlike the amethyst, something is wrong with this obelisk, which is why Syenite experienced no light when she entered its environment. This is also, presumably, why she was able to access its power without dying. This is another cinematic and vivid scene as the massive alien object rises from the water.
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As Syenite continues to study the massive obelisk, which hovers above the harbor and begins to rotate, she sees a figure caught among the shattered part of the crystal—a human trapped inside. She looks closer and realizes that it’s not a human, but a stone eater, and that it’s dead. Overwhelmed, Syenite tries to process everything that has just happened. The chapter ends with a quotation from stonelore saying that Father Earth never sleeps, and he never forgets.
Syenite doesn’t understand anything about this, and at this point, neither do readers. All that has become clear is that there is much more going on in Allia than there seemed to be initially. In the quotation, Father Earth is again personified as a godlike figure full of anger and long memory, an enemy of humanity.
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