The Fifth Season

The Fifth Season

by

N. K. Jemisin

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The Fifth Season: Chapter 21 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Essun and the others have been put up in an apartment inside a crystal. Amid her tiredness from the overwhelming day, Essun suddenly realizes that she actually knows Tonkee, and she says this—Tonkee is Binof Leadership Yumenes. Tonkee seems cowed and says that she didn’t think Essun remembered her. Essun now realizes that it wasn’t a coincidence that Tonkee started traveling with her, and finally Tonkee admits that this is true: she’s had people following Essun for years now. They lost her 10 years ago, but then were able to find her again.
This further confirms that Essun is both Syenite and Damaya—she has essentially changed her identity twice over the years, but she still remembers Damaya’s experiences at the Fulcrum with the young Leadership girl Binof.
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Learning this, Essun grows angry and demands an explanation. Tonkee apologizes and tries to explain: she is a geomest and did go to the Seventh University, though that didn’t go well for her, but she has spent her life studying the “socket” that she and Essun found at the Fulcrum. Essun tries to change the subject, but Tonkee declares that this matters, and Essun is one of the only people who can “make it matter.” Tonkee then declares that the socket is where the obelisks were built, and also where “everything went wrong.”
The mystery of the obelisks comes to the fore again, as Binof was seemingly unable to let go of their discovery in the Fulcrum (while Damaya was mostly grateful to have survived the ordeal) and has pursued her insatiable curiosity for decades. She suggests here that the building of the obelisks had something to do with the original Fifth Season and everything that has gone wrong with the world.
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Backtracking, Essun learns more about what happened to Binof, who now prefers the name Tonkee. She disappointed her Leadership family by rejecting all their acceptable professions, and even more by being a trans girl, as the members of the Leadership use-caste “breed among themselves” via arranged marriages. Her family finally decided to “bury” her at the Seventh University and give her a new use-caste, thus disowning her without a scandal. Tonkee has since spent her life studying the obelisks.
Tonkee’s privileges kept her alive, safe, and even well-educated despite the fact that she went against her use-caste in every conceivable way. Yet while she still has some of her old naïveté and obliviousness, she has also been living as a commless woman, devoting herself entirely to her studies and rejecting any of the comforts that she could easily possess.
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Tonkee says that she wasn’t obsessed with Essun on a personal level, but mostly had her followed because she thought that Essun might be someone who could control the obelisks. Essun bitterly points out that she went so far as to die to escape the Fulcrum, but still couldn’t escape Tonkee. Tonkee says that she’s been tracking the obelisks themselves, as well, and has noticed that they move very slowly toward certain skilled orogenes. Two were moving toward Tirimo, and that was how Tonkee found her—further, one of the obelisks was the amethyst that had to travel all the way from the eastern coast. Tonkee says that she only tried to actually reach Essun after the Rifting happened in the north.
Essun reiterates the point that she had to essentially die in order to find freedom from the Fulcrum during her time at Meov. As a geomest and member of the Leadership use-caste, Tonkee has access to far more knowledge than the average Stillness citizen—but fortunately, she has used this not to exploit others but rather to pursue the mystery of the obelisks. The obelisks seem to have a personal connection to particular orogenes, as one followed Essun all the way from the region near Allia and Meov.
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Essun says that there should have been only one obelisk headed toward Tirimo, the amethyst, but Tonkee insists that there was another one, and it had picked up speed in the last two or three years. Uche was almost three, Essun thinks, so the other obelisk must have been heading for him. At this thought, she shuts down inside and tells Tonkee to leave her, then sits in silence for a long time.
Once again, the weight of her grief makes Essun completely shut down emotionally, as the trauma that she has experienced during her life is too much for any one person to bear all at once. Instead, she is forced to compartmentalize, to divide her very self into separate identities.
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Hoa comes into the room, and Essun prepares to talk to him. He admits that he is a stone eater, but Essun is still confused—unlike other stone eaters, he has real hair, skin that bleeds, and he can move about at the speed of a human being. In response, Hoa unties the little cloth bundle that he’s been carrying ever since Essun first found him. Inside is a collection of white and red chunks of crystal. Hoa picks one up and then starts to eat it. Essun asks if that’s his food, but Hoa gestures at the rocks and says, “Me.” In some way, he implies, he is the crystals, and eating them allows him to look human.
Hoa doesn’t clearly explain what he has done to make himself seem more human, but it is now fully made clear that he was the figure that emerged from the geode in the first chapter. He confirms that he is a stone eater, but everything else that he says here only deepens the mysteries about him.
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Essun is still confused, and she asks Hoa why he would want to seem human when he could just travel through the earth. Hoa just says that he wanted to travel with Essun—because he likes her. He seems just like any other child as he says this, and Essun has to remind herself that he’s probably thousands of years old. Hoa assures her that he won’t hurt her, and Essun is surprised to realize that she never thought he might. He then tells her that it isn’t safe here in Castrima. Essun answers sarcastically and then remembers that in her persona as “Essun,” she isn’t supposed to be that way; she’s supposed to calm and gentle. But she isn’t just Essun anymore, she knows.
Hoa apparently changed his physical appearance entirely for Essun’s sake, and he seems to have an overarching purpose for their interpersonal connection. Now that it’s clear that Essun is actually Syenite, she begins to return to the same sarcastic and prickly mindset that defined her younger self—whereas when she was Essun, she had carefully crafted an identity that was more docile and unassuming.
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Essun asks Hoa about the other stone eaters in Castrima, and he tenses up again, saying that they aren’t like him. Essun is exhausted by now and tells him that she needs to sleep. Hoa says he’ll keep watch, as he hardly ever needs to sleep. Essun goes to bed. She wakes up next to Hoa, with Tonkee asleep in the other room. Essun has no idea how long she’s been asleep, or what time of day it is aboveground. She leaves the apartment and tries to make her way back down to ground level, though this means navigating a maze of hanging walkways stretched between the crystals.
As Alabaster had suggested, there are likely warring factions and hierarchies even among the stone eaters, as alien as they might appear to human beings. Hoa seems to continue to place his connection to Essun above all else.
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Finally, Essun finds the communal baths, which are heated and continuously refilled by a mysterious system of pipes. Essun undresses and starts to wash herself when someone approaches her: she’s shocked to see that it’s Lerna, her friend and ally from Tirimo. He tells Essun that he thought she might end up here, and it seems like fate that they would end up in the same place. Recognizing that Essun is still naked, he turns away to let her finish bathing. Essun is still almost speechless at the sight of him, but she is pleased that he continues to treat her like a human being despite knowing what she is.
Lerna’s appearance is a sudden reminder of her life in Tirimo and the identity that she had built as Essun. But he is also the exception in that he doesn’t condemn her as a monster despite her orogeny (and the fact that she destroyed much of their town when she left).
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The other people at the baths seem to look more kindly on Essun after her encounter with Lerna, and Essun wonders if Ykka tries to hide her orogeny from the public, or if they know she’s a rogga and still choose to follow her. Only one other time in her life has Essun lived somewhere that treated orogenes like that, she recalls. When Essun is done washing, she joins Lerna again, who takes her to his apartment. He is clearly filling his role as doctor here in Castrima, just as he did in Tirimo. He and Essun sit down, and Lerna starts explaining how he got here.
The previous place where Essun lived as an orogene among stills is implied to be Meov, though her experiences since then have made her wary and secretive about her identity once more. Her own sense of the need for secrecy makes her assume that Ykka must also be hiding her orogeny, no matter how direct and open Castrima’s leader seems to be.
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Lerna says that he left Tirimo the day after Essun did, as the town was already falling apart, and everyone was suspicious of everyone else. Besides, as Essun’s friend, Lerna knew he wouldn’t be safe for long. First, he thought about going to a town where he had family, but he also considered trying to catch up with Essun on the road. There is a pause, and Essun recognizes an unspoken thing between them—Lerna has always liked her, and though she assumed that he would grow out of his crush, it’s now clear that he hasn’t.
Essun has experienced her own traumatic journey, but her actions have also had serious consequences for those around her, as evidenced by Lerna having to flee Tirimo simply because he was known to be her friend. The romantic aspect of Lerna and Essun’s relationship has not been explored yet, but it is more fully introduced here.
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Lerna continues, saying that he snuck out of Tirimo and walked with the flow of refugees for a long way until he got lost. Eventually, he joined two others, a man and his teenaged daughter. They were attacked by bandits one day and the older man sacrificed himself so that Lerna and the daughter could escape. Later the daughter left Lerna, calling him a coward for abandoning her father. Essun tries to comfort him, as he is clearly still upset about this.
In a Fifth Season, everyone has their own story of what they have been forced to do to survive. Lerna acted courageously in one sense and cowardly in another, and he’s tormented by this ambiguity. It’s implied that he had no good choices to make, however—in this apocalyptic world, one can only choose the lesser of two evils.
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Lerna continued on alone and realized that he, too, was extremely vulnerable, just like the daughter who was now on her own. Essun silently agrees, and she physically assesses him—he’s not tall or bulky like the Sanzed Equatorials prefer, and he is too mixed racially for them to find him attractive, but “by Somidlats standards he’s a looker.” Lerna says that about two weeks ago, he found his way to Castrima, which seemed abandoned. He slept there one night, and when he woke up, he was surrounded by people. When he told them that he was a doctor, they brought him down to the real comm.
Essun continues to see people through the lens of Stillness society, examining their racial characteristics and factoring in how the ruling class would judge them. She herself clearly finds Lerna to be a “looker,” but she also can’t help judging him by Sanzed standards. Castrima found Lerna useful as a doctor and so brought him into the real comm for its own benefit.
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Lerna and Essun fall silent for a while, and then Lerna tells Essun that Nassun definitely isn’t here—he’s met all the other newcomers in Castrima by now. Again, Essun is struck by a sense of failure and aimlessness, even harder now than when she lost control in front of Ykka. Again, she chastises herself for daring to think that she mattered, but she also remembers how much she mattered to her children. Three times in her life, she has lived with a man who truly cared about her, though the last time—with Jija—was built on a foundation of lies. Lerna tries to comfort her, and Essun starts to weep.
Essun’s disparate identities come together more as the novel draws to a close, and she lets herself remember Alabaster and Innon and the brief experience of freedom that they shared on Meov. She found a different kind of love and freedom in Tirimo, but it also meant hiding her true identity as an orogene, which ultimately led to the disaster of Uche’s murder. Still, Essun has internalized her society’s anti-orogene sentiment and so blames herself for everything that happened to her children—simply because she dared to try to have a normal life.
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Lerna suggests that they go to Essun’s apartment, and Essun manages to control her tears once more and lead Lerna away. As they walk through the comm, Essun notices strange new chambers containing objects that she doesn’t understand and carvings of what seems like writing in a foreign script. As they ascend, Essun realizes that Lerna is afraid of heights, but he continues on with her.
Like Meov, Castrima seems to have origins outside of and older than the Sanzed empire, again showing how much of the Stillness’s history has been lost or suppressed.
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Essun again feels like it’s insane to build a comm in the middle of these ruins, as the people who lived here before were unable to survive. She can’t help feeling that Castrima should have just done things as stonelore says to do, instead of gathering stone eaters and roggas into a single underground chamber. Finally, they make it back to Essun’s chambers, where Tonkee is eating in the living room. Lerna introduces himself to her, and they are cautious with each other until Lerna mentions testing the people of Castrima for vitamin deficiencies, and then Tonkee is immediately eager to talk to him.
Despite all that she’s been through, Essun still instinctively returns to the worldview that stonelore has taught her and assumes that roggas, stills, and stone eaters cannot live together peacefully. (Though this is also another example of the character seeming to have forgotten her past experiences in order to maintain the narrative.) Tonkee’s insatiable curiosity remains undiminished, as she is immediately drawn to others with a scientific bent.
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Hoa enters the apartment and first glares at Lerna, but then seems to visibly relax. He turns to Essun and says that there’s someone here from Yumenes who wants to see her. Essun is surprised, claiming that she doesn’t know anyone from Yumenes, but Hoa says that the man asked for her and wanted to “see if you can do it yet,” though he didn’t clarify what “it” is. Hoa says that the man is like Essun—not just a rogga, but something else. The man also said that Essun owes him, for Corundum’s sake. Essun freezes and realizes that it’s Alabaster. Hoa confirms this and says that Alabaster is dying.
This moment explicitly ties Essun to Syenite, confirming once more that all three protagonists are actually the same woman at different stages of her life. The fact that Essun and Alabaster have ended up here—without their child Corundum—then raises the suspense surrounding what happened to them on Meov. Hoa’s vague description of Alabaster and Essun’s likeness probably means that they are similar in that they’re both able to connect to the obelisks.
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The chapter ends with a description of a Fifth Season called the Madness Season, during which a series of eruptions blanketed the Stillness in darkness for 10 years, leading to mass starvation but also a rise in mental illness. The Sanzed Warlord Verishe used psychological warfare to conquer many comms during this time, and she was named the first Emperor when the Season ended.
This excerpt from Sanzed history shows how power often begins—through violence and oppression. The Sanzed race has since built up a society that assumes its own superiority, but its origins are in the psychological terrorism of Verishe. In the harsh world of the Stillness, violence is often necessary. But it is also used as a justification for the powerful to remain on top, as they assume that survival and strength mean that they’re inherently superior.
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