The Fifth Season

The Fifth Season

by

N. K. Jemisin

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The Fifth Season: Chapter 17 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
A year passes for Damaya at the Fulcrum. She is lonely, but she comes to think of herself not as a student but as a weapon—someone who doesn’t need friends or fun, only training and refining. Eventually she starts using her free hour after dinner to explore the Fulcrum grounds. There is little supervision of the grits during this time unless they enter the forbidden Ring Garden, so no one gives her any trouble as she wanders the miles of pathways, training areas, and landscaped grounds. She also explores the administrative buildings, which include practice chambers where ringed orogenes move around huge blocks of basalt as practice. Sometimes Damaya sees them doing this and longs to be like them.
Like a piece of “grit,” Damaya’s sense of freedom and childhood innocence is ground down by life at the Fulcrum. She even internalizes the idea that she’s not a human being at all, but a weapon that deserves any harsh treatment she might receive in the name of becoming more useful. At the same time, she longs for what she perceives as the freedom and mastery that the older orogenes enjoy. This is exactly what the Fulcrum wants, however—Syenite’s story has shown that even the highest ranked orogenes are still essentially slaves, but the Fulcrum is designed to make its members keep striving and hoping to be rewarded with freedom and autonomy.
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Damaya is most intrigued by “Main,” the massive central building of the Fulcrum campus. This is full of offices for the orogenes to take care of their own internal business—as they can’t use any of Yumenes’s resources—and a wing for the Guardians as well. Damaya avoids this part and avoids Guardians whenever she sees them, as she begins to notice a strange and unpleasant sensation whenever one gets too close. In Main, there are also sections that are totally abandoned. After discovering one of these one night, Damaya preps the day before and then begins to explore it.
Readers now know that what Damaya is experiencing with the Guardians is the negation of her own orogeny. She still totally trusts in the established order, however, believing that what the Guardians do is necessary—exactly as Schaffa so brutally taught her. Robbed of friendship and other formative childhood experiences, Damaya expresses herself by exploring whatever she can within the walls that keep her trapped.
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Making her way through the dark rooms, Damaya finds that the abandoned wings echo the structure of the other parts of Main, with its series of offices and meeting rooms. In them she discovers old books and clothes, and she tries on some of the ornate dresses that she finds. She also comes to rooms full of contraptions that she doesn’t understand. Every night now, she explores these abandoned parts of Main, and though she sometimes sees her teachers on her way to and from the building, none of them bother her. She enjoys having this private time to herself, seemingly secret from the universal order that is imposed on all the grits of the Fulcrum.
Damaya finds a sense of freedom and even identity in her private explorations, as they are the only thing that she is allowed to have for herself alone. The Fulcrum has taught her that she is just another grit, a non-human weapon to be sharpened. But when she is exploring, she can briefly be Damaya, a real human child.
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One day, however, a girl entirely unfamiliar to Damaya joins her group of grits on their march through Ring Garden. They have just finished their Applied Orogeny lesson, during which Marcasite praised Damaya’s work and told her that she would be ready for her first ring test soon—a year before anyone else in her age group. Damaya is so pleased by this that she almost misses the strange girl, but it also seems that she is the only one who notices her. The girl sees Damaya staring and winks at her, and Damaya becomes too flustered to say anything to the instructors.
The book doesn’t show much of Damaya’s actual schooling, but it’s apparent that she is an exceptional student, especially because she has now fully accepted that she cannot have a normal childhood and must adapt to the oppressive system around her. This system’s routine is then disrupted by the appearance of the strange girl.
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When they return to the barracks for Free Hour, Damaya confronts the strange girl and asks who she is. The girl is very talkative and goes on about how she’s surprised that no one else has noticed her, and only when Damaya threatens to yell for the instructors does she introduce herself as Binof. Damaya starts asking her many more questions about what she’s doing here, but Binof hushes her. She tells Damaya that she’s here to look for something strange within the Fulcrum. She can’t describe it, but in trying to do so, she makes a hexagonal shape with her hands.
It's lucky for the girl that Damaya is the only one to notice her, and even luckier that Damaya has spent so much time exploring the Fulcrum recently. At the same time, the fact that no one else seems to notice or care that there is a strange girl in their midst shows just how deadened and cut off from one another the grits feel.
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Though this seems nonsensical at first, Damaya actually knows what Binof means: the massive building of Main is circular in shape, but over time she has sessed and deduced that there is a large, hexagonal empty space in its center, around which all of the wings are built. Damaya calls it “a room without doors,” and Binof excitedly anticipates that this must be what she’s looking for.
The mention of a giant hexagonal shape is an early clue that this secret room might have something to do with the obelisks. But like most people in the Stillness, Damaya has grown up almost entirely ignoring the obelisks, so she doesn’t think to make the connection.
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More serious now, Damaya asks again who the strange girl is, and now she offers her full name: Binof Leadership Yumenes. Slowly, Damaya realizes what this means: Binof is not an orogene and is rather a member of one of the most powerful families on the continent. All Binof asks is that Damaya not give her away until she can find the room she’s looking for. Damaya asks why she’s doing this, and Binof says that she can’t tell her, but she’s looking for something that only Leaders know about. Binof seems confident that nothing will happen to her if she’s caught, but Damaya knows that she won’t be so lucky, as she’s not even a human.
The Leadership use-caste is the highest ranking of all, and the Leadership families of Yumenes are suggested to be the richest and most influential people in the Stillness. This means that Binof is coming from a radically different place in the hierarchy than Damaya is. Her privilege means that she doesn’t fear any major consequences for breaking the rules, while Damaya knows that as an orogene she can easily be killed without anyone caring at all.
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Damaya again threatens to call an instructor, and in a panic, Binof offers her money and then privileges for the next time she leaves the Fulcrum. Cursing her, Damaya tells her that she has no need for money and is never allowed to leave the Fulcrum—she’s here, she says, because “it’s the only place we can be safe from people like you.” Damaya gets so angry at Binof and her privileged naïveté that she almost loses control and uses her orogeny. Binof notices this and isn’t afraid, but only more energetically curious than ever. Finally, she asks sincerely if Damaya will help her find the secret room, and Damaya reluctantly agrees, now very curious herself. Binof says that she’s seen some old architectural drawings of Main and has an idea where the secret entrance might be—it’s in one of the used parts of the building.
Binof’s carefree curiosity enrages Damaya, who no longer has the privilege of childhood innocence or even the illusion of safety. In this way, the book shows how privileged groups don’t even recognize their advantages until they are pointed out to them, instead accepting them as the norm and assuming that others have the same experience. This means that it’s easy for members of marginalized groups to react bitterly or angerly in response, which can then make privileged people feel attacked.
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As Damaya leads Binof toward Main, she notices more adults looking at her than usual. At first, she thinks that they are suspicious, but then she realizes that they are actually quietly pleased that she—who they see as a lonely, wandering girl—has finally found a friend to join her. As they walk, Binof comments on how odd it is that the adults allow children such freedom, as they might hurt themselves, and Damaya stops her and reminds that they aren’t children: they’re grits. No one cares if they get hurt, and Binof needs to start acting like this if she’s going to pretend to be an orogene.
Damaya must remind Binof again that their experiences are nothing alike, and that to really fit in, Binof must start to think of herself as a non-human whose safety and desires are entirely irrelevant. Binof is allowed to be a child, while Damaya is forced to be a grit. Damaya doesn’t want Binof to have to experience the same oppression, but she does want to have the same privileges that Binof does.
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The two girls enter Main, and as they head toward the spot that Binof thinks contains an entrance to the secret inner room, Damaya grows uncomfortable because they’re now close to the Guardians’ wing. Binof says that, as an orogene, Damaya should be able to figure out where the hidden door is using her power. Damaya first scoffs at this but then realizes that she actually can do this to a certain degree. She tries it now, applying all the control and skill that she has learned over the last year and feeling her way along the inner walls of the building, finally finding a place where there is a gap.
Damaya goes outside her Fulcrum training here at Binof’s urging, thinking outside the box and using her orogeny in a specialized new way. Though it has robbed her of humanity and childhood, the Fulcrum’s harsh and brutal training has given Damaya incredible power and control even at such a young age.
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Damaya now starts walking down the corridor until she comes to the place where she sessed the gap in the inner wall—it’s inside what seems to be a closed office building. Knowing how risky this is, Damaya knocks first, then tries the door but finds it locked. Binof now takes a tool from her pocket and begins to pick the lock. After a while Damaya gets frustrated, worried about being discovered, but finally Binof manages to get the door open. Inside is an empty office, though it seems grander and more ornate than others that Damaya has seen, and the lanterns inside are lit.
The girls are now in entirely unknown territory and in constant danger of being discovered by the Guardians. This will only mean a scolding for Binof, but likely injury or even death for Damaya.
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Continuing to search, Damaya opens a closet in the room. It seems like the right place, but she can sess that there is a missing gap beyond it, between the closet and the inner wall of the building itself. Binof searches the wall with her hands and finds a loose brick, which she removes to find an iron latch. Overwhelmingly curious now, Damaya tells her to open it. Binof does so, and the whole wall swings free, revealing a tunnel beyond. Damaya asks what Binof was hoping to find here, and when Binof is evasive, Damaya again threatens to turn her in.
Damaya finally allows herself to experience genuine curiosity in this adventure instead of just constantly looking over her shoulder in fear. However, she still recognizes the risk of exploring forbidden places like this and treats Binof accordingly, as Damaya knows that she herself could be hurt or killed if a Guardian discovered them.
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Though she says that only Leaders are supposed to know this information, Binof finally relents. She tells Damaya that she’s learned that there’s some kind of mysterious artifact in the center of the Fulcrum. It is connected to a gap in history itself—after one Fifth Season that took place thousands of years ago, warlords took over as they usually do, but no one settled where Yumenes now is, even though it was the perfect place to build a city. This is because “there was something here.” Binof says she doesn’t know what that thing is, but it’s what she’s trying to find out now.
The history of the Stillness itself is shrouded in secrecy, as only Leadership members are supposed to know certain things. This heavily implies that whatever this privileged information is could be detrimental to the current status quo if it became common knowledge. History and knowledge are thus weaponized by those in power in order to maintain their status.
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After this Fifth Season was the Madness Season, during which Warlord Verishe founded Sanze and became the first Emperor. Verishe built Yumenes around the mysterious artifact that everyone feared, and centuries later, the Fulcrum was established on top of the thing itself. Binof says that this is the mystery she’s trying to solve, and Damaya now silently agrees to continue helping her. Together they enter the tunnel.
Notably, this secret history is intimately tied to the founding of Sanze. This suggests that whatever it is must go against the narrative that the empire tells about itself.
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Binof blunders ahead in the dark, and Damaya warns her to be careful, sessing that there’s something heavy and pressed down ahead—some kind of big hole. Suddenly lights activate around them, coming on to illuminate the way forward and then spreading outward to reveal a massive hexagonal chamber. The walls and floor are of plain stone, but there is an enormous pit in the center of the floor, itself also hexagonal. Both girls stare in awe. Damaya can sess that the pit is incredibly deep, and tapers to a point at its bottom. She also feels sure that no one dug this pit, but rather that something punched downward into the earth and left the hole as an impression.
It now seems very likely that the pit is connected to the obelisks, since it seems to mold around their shape, and Damaya can even sess that something huge and heavy sat within it. This furthers the idea that the obelisks are actually incredibly important, since those in power want to keep their history and potential so secret.
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Crouching and looking closer at the hexagonal pit, Damaya sees that its walls are lined with iron needles. As the two girls continue to wonder at what they’ve found, a voice suddenly speaks behind them. Damaya jumps in surprise and suddenly feels like she’s going to fall into the pit, and counterintuitively she even relaxes, feeling like her body is overwhelmingly heavy and ready to fall in. Binof catches her arm, and Damaya realizes that she wasn’t especially close to the pit’s edge at all—there’s no reason why she should have felt that falling in was inevitable. As she wonders at this, the source of the voice appears: it’s a Guardian.
Something about the pit or the iron needles calls to Damaya in a strange way, and she almost gives in and lets herself fall. All these mysteries will be explored more in the second and third books of the Broken Earth trilogy. Of course, this secret place is guarded by a Guardian—after all, it is the Guardians who try to assassinate Alabaster and then Syenite when they learn that the two orogenes can connect with the obelisks. It seems that they guard secret knowledge as much as they guard people.
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The Guardian is a short-haired woman who seems older than Schaffa and is smiling in the same strange way that every Guardian seems to. The Guardian calls Damaya by name and says that Schaffa will be disappointed in her. Binof then declares that she is the one who ordered Damaya here, and it’s her fault. In a new and serious voice, she introduces herself as Leadership and apologizes to the Guardian. The Guardian’s smile fades, but she greets Binof in a pleasant voice. Binof says that her parents surely know where she is by now, so the Guardian can speak to them directly. Damaya realizes that this is a wise move on Binof’s part.
The Guardian likely would have killed both girls without a second thought if Binof were not from such an influential family, and if Binof herself didn’t make it clear that she would be missed. Damaya can only hope that Binof’s privilege will protect her as well.
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The Guardian smiles again at both girls and tells them to come with her, out of the chamber. As they leave, the lights go out behind them, and the Guardian locks the office’s door. In the Guardians’ wing, the woman stops Damaya and leads Binof away. Binof looks back, but Damaya avoids her eyes, feeling that the strange girl has already caused her enough trouble. Damaya waits there until the woman returns and leads her into a large new room, saying that she has sent for Schaffa, who is currently in Yumenes. This room is full of people, some wearing black uniforms, some burgundy uniforms, and some civilian clothes, and Damaya stares until the woman puts a hand on her head and turns her away, ushering her into a small office.
Damaya gets a brief glimpse of the Fulcrum’s inner workings here. The mix of burgundy and black uniforms suggests that the Guardians and upper-level orogenes are working together, and those in civilian clothes might be undercover operatives. As usual, everything is kept secret from those outside of this inner circle of power.
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Damaya sits down and immediately apologizes to the Guardian, who sits down as well. Smiling again, the Guardian starts asking her questions that she doesn’t understand—if she touched one of the “extrusions” in the “socket,” and if it called to her. The Guardian’s smile has suddenly disappeared, and she is now speaking in an entirely different voice than before. She takes Damaya’s hand and starts to stroke it, asking her more questions about an unnamed thing that she says is angry and afraid, and “readying, for the time of return.”
The Guardian seems taken over by an external force—or, as is revealed in later books, by the very object implanted in her sessapinae—and delivers an ambiguous sort of prophecy that creates a sense of dread and raised stakes. The overarching antagonist is still unknown to the characters, but the Guardian’s behavior here suggests that it’s something beyond humanity itself.
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It’s as if someone else is speaking through the Guardian’s body, and as the woman continues, she starts to press her thumb into the bones of Damaya’s hand that Schaffa broke a year and half ago. The woman keeps speaking as her thumbnail now cuts into Damaya’s skin, describing the unnamed thing that “did what it had to do, last time” and “made them a part of it.” Damaya finally yells at the Guardian that she doesn’t understand what’s happening. She knows that she is supposed to obey the Guardians, but what this woman is doing makes no sense according to the order of life at the Fulcrum.
Damaya has accepted the order of life at the Fulcrum because it gives her a small sense of stability and security, but the Guardian’s behavior here goes against everything that she has learned. Guardians are inscrutable and terrifying, but they always maintain complete control of themselves—this Guardian, however, has entirely lost control and become an agent of chaotic violence. The upending of the established order is just as terrifying to Damaya as the rogue Guardian’s actions are.
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Suddenly Schaffa enters the room and addresses the woman, whom he calls Timay. She continues to drone on, however, and Schaffa sighs and stabs his fingers into the back of her head. Suddenly she jolts forward and blood flows from her neck, and Damaya begins to scream. Schaffa continues, tearing something small out of the back of Timay’s skull. Timay slumps forward, another Guardian enters, and Schaffa gives the bloody object to the man, who leaves. At Schaffa’s terse request, two other Guardians enter, remove Timay’s body, and mop up the blood where she fell.
Alabaster has referenced the Guardians having something implanted into their sessapinae as children to give them their powers. Here, Schaffa appears to tear that object from Timay’s body, killing her in the process. All of this deepens the mystery and shows again how violent and powerful the Guardians are—but it also suggests that they have no qualms about killing one of their own.
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Schaffa then takes Damaya’s hand and examines where Timay cut her. He smiles sadly at her and says that she saw something she should not have—Guardians undergo a procedure where something is implanted, he says, and sometimes it must be removed. A Guardian’s connection to their orogenes can help them, but Timay had not maintained such connections. Damaya then remembers that when she first met Schaffa, he pressed his fingers to the back of her skull. She asks Schaffa what Timay was talking about, what was the angry thing she mentioned. Schaffa says that it was “Father Earth,” and that this is “a common delusion.” Schaffa then apologizes to Damaya again, and he seems so sincere that she starts to cry.
Schaffa tries to downplay Timay’s words, but it appears that she really was overcome by a separate consciousness talking about “Father Earth” as if it were a real and malevolent entity. This is a hint at the kind of forces the novel’s characters might be up against in the future. Nothing is yet explained, but this mystery seems intimately connected to something in the sessapinae of orogenes and Guardians (who are themselves the “still” children of orogenes, as Alabaster explained).
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After a while, Schaffa picks Damaya up and lets her weep into his lap. She cries for a long time, not just because of the night’s trauma but because she feels like Schaffa is the only person who loves her, if in his own frightening and inexplicable way. When she finally stops crying, Schaffa says that he needs her to do something for him: to go down the hall and pass her first ring test. Damaya quickly understands that this is her only opportunity to prove herself useful and survive in light of the other things that have happened tonight. Schaffa asks her again, saying that his life is full of too much death, and he needs her to live.
Damaya has not let herself show fragility or true emotion in a full year, and she lets all of those repressed feelings out here. Schaffa frightens her, but he has also become the only person she can now think of as a friend or family member. And despite his abuse and whatever sinister force he answers to, Schaffa does seem to genuinely care for Damaya and want her to survive, as he tries to keep the other Guardians from killing her by proving that she is useful in passing her ring test. Once again, the orogenes are judged not by their intrinsic value as human beings, but only on their usefulness and ability to control themselves.
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Damaya thinks again of all the mysteries of the last year—what the “socket” is, where Crack went, and she feels suddenly that the Fulcrum’s way of life is “not right.” But Schaffa asks again, and she knows that she loves him too, however wrong that might be. She tells him that if she passes her test, she has picked a rogga name: Syenite. Schaffa says that he likes it, and Damaya resolves that she will indeed pass the test for Schaffa’s sake. The chapter ends with an obscured verse of stonelore, ending with “They are not masters of themselves; allow them no mastery of others.”
This is the end of Damaya’s storyline in the novel, as it is finally revealed in plain terms that she is Syenite (and therefore, it’s likely that Syenite later becomes Essun as well). On her last night as Damaya, she recognizes that the society around her is “not right”—but she’s not yet ready to go against it, instead continuing to cling to Schaffa and the order of the Fulcrum. She will pass her test and become the ambitious young woman of Syenite’s storyline, trying to climb the ranks of the Fulcrum and purposefully working within the system that oppresses her—until Alabaster arrives and upends her worldview.
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