The Clalsu has now returned safely to Meov, bringing back many valuable spoils for the island. The Meovites hold a massive party to celebrate, but Syenite has been in bed ever since she got back. She feels like they are celebrating all the mass murders she’s committed, both in Allia and with the two ships. Alabaster has stayed with Syen during this time, telling her that he understands what it means to feel like this, and she believes him even though he won’t give her details. Alabaster then offers her a gift: he has made her two more rings to signify how skilled and powerful she has become.
All the death that has resulted from her orogeny makes Syenite feel like she really is a dangerous monster, just as she has been taught for her entire life. The fact that she really is responsible to some degree, because of her great power, complicates the situation. Alabaster has presumably killed people in the past as well—whether by accident or on the Fulcrum’s orders—so he understands what it’s like feel this guilt that has no answer.
Syenite rejects them, insisting that they are free of the Fulcrum now, and so they don’t need rings or uniforms anymore. Alabaster says that one of them will eventually have to train Corundum, but Syenite suggests that they just let him learn the basics. Alabaster strokes her hair and reminds her of the story of Misalem and Shemshena, and that the orogenes will always be the Misalems of the world. Syen says she’s heard the story, but Alabaster tells her that there’s also more to it than the Guardians will admit.
Syenite wants to be free of the Fulcrum altogether, even its system of ranking. Alabaster hates the Fulcrum as well, but he also believes that they can never truly leave it behind, and they will eventually have to use some of its training methods on their own son. Alabaster seems resigned to the way that the world views orogenes, but he also continues to question Syen’s own conceptions of history.
Alabaster says that the story took place soon after the Fifth Season called the Season of Teeth, and the emperor at the time was called Anafumeth. Syenite interrupts to ask Alabaster how he knows this, and he says that because he was so far ahead of his age group at the Fulcrum, he was given freedom to explore the library. He also learned things from an “archeomest” on his first mission away from the Fulcrum, shyly implying that they had a relationship.
Like Syen, Alabaster first tried to find freedom within the confines of the Fulcrum and its hierarchy. His success in his training ironically led him to knowledge that changed his worldview and made him question the Fulcrum’s system.
Alabaster continues: during the Season of Teeth almost everyone in the Stillness starved, and the Sanzed comms started working together to attack others. This is also when they started calling other people “lesser races.” Syenite assumes that they just raided the other comms’ supplies, but Alabaster says that no one had supplies at the time—the Sanzeds took people to eat. Even after the Season ended, the Sanzeds maintained their cannibalism, raiding the comms of other races. Misalem was the only one to survive one of these raids, and his whole family was taken to be eaten. Justifiably, he wanted to kill Anafumeth in revenge.
The Sanzed Empire’s history of itself is an altered and sanitized version of reality. They didn’t survive Fifth Seasons and gain power because they were smarter and better adapted than everyone else, as they claim—they were just more powerful and ruthless than other races, combining cannibalism with psychological warfare and racial supremacism. The fact that Syenite had no idea of the reality shows how those in power can use history and accepted knowledge to maintain their status.
Syenite thinks about this: Misalem’s rage was certainly justifiable, but roggas aren’t allowed the luxury of rage, and Shemshena was made a hero for killing him. Alabaster presses the two new rings into her hands, telling her that orogenes are what built the Fulcrum and made the Sanzed Empire so powerful, even if they did it as slaves who also enslaved their own kind. Orogeny is a gift, he insists. Essun says that it’s a curse instead, but she still takes the rings. Alabaster replies that it’s a gift if it makes them better and a curse if it destroys them, and he kisses Syenite on the forehead. Syenite then tells him that she thought she saw a Guardian at Allia. Alabaster is silent for a while, and then he declares that he will “tear the whole world apart” if the Guardians hurt them again.
Misalem represents oppressed people everywhere: they are not allowed to express rage at injustice or react to violence with violence, lest the oppressor try to claim the moral high ground. The question of whether orogeny is a gift or a curse is an important moment in the novel. On one level, it questions whether or not something like orogeny—or any other immutable characteristic—is something to be ashamed of on a personal level, and to be degraded or valued on a societal level. The book implies that, ideally, these things should be accepted as simple facts of life—they should not determine how a person is perceived and treated. Alabaster again shows his willingness to use his power for drastic upheaval in the name of justice.
“The world ends” three weeks after this. It is a beautiful day, and everyone in Meov decides to go up to the clifftops to enjoy it, bringing food and blankets with them. Innon brings a musical instrument, Alabaster carries Corundum, and Syen brings a terrible but enjoyable novel from the looted cargo ship. When they reach the clifftops, Syen tries to place her blanket away from everyone else, but the Meovites purposefully move closer just to tease her—she has realized that they still see her and Alabaster as something foreign and amusing and enjoy messing with them. Alabaster clearly likes all the human contact, and Syen does too, though she will never admit it to anyone.
The novel began with one world ending, but this is another, as things come full circle and the narrative continues to illustrate different kinds of disaster and apocalypse. To raise the suspense, the book builds up the idyllic scene here on the clifftops. It’s the first time that Syen really feels like she has a family and community, but this sense of contentment is framed by the foreshadowing that it will all be taken away soon.
Looking around at the Meovites, with Innon tossing Corundum into the air as Alabaster looks on nervously, Syenite feels like she might really love these people. Alabaster then starts reading Syen’s novel and grimacing at it. Their eyes meet, and Alabaster teasingly asks her if she still dislikes him—but he also asks if she would want to have another child, maybe this time with Innon. Syen shuts this idea down, saying that she still wants her freedom. Alabaster agrees, but he says that when he really thinks about it, all that he ever wanted from life was a family like this—he never wanted to be great or to fix the world like Syen does. They lie down together on either side of Innon, and Syen drifts off into a contented sleep.
This is the last real moment of contentment and feeling of freedom that Syenite experiences (in her identity as Syenite, before she becomes Essun). She is free from the Fulcrum and has a child and a family, but she also has her own personal independence because of the communal parenting in Meov. Tragically, the very existence of Essun’s storyline shows that this life cannot last.
Syenite wakes to see Innon holding Corundum and looking worriedly at Alabaster, who is on his feet and tensed, clearly sessing something in the distance. Syenite sends out her own orogeny and feels nothing—but it’s a nothingness that is strange, because the earth is never really still to a skilled orogene. Corundum suddenly starts to cry and struggle, and Alabaster seems to recognize what is happening and takes off running. Some of the Meovites rush up to a nearby ridge to check for danger, and Syenite and Innon join them. To the west, Syenite sees four ships approaching. As they get nearer, she sees that some of the people on the deck are wearing the burgundy uniform of the Guardians.
The nothingness that Syenite feels is the negation of her orogeny that accompanies the presence of Guardians, as her sense of peace and freedom is broken by the inevitable hand of the social hierarchy. Those in power will never allow those who threaten the established order to live peacefully. Alabaster and Syenite pose no danger to the Fulcrum or the Guardians anymore, but they are condemned to die anyway.
Syenite explains this to Innon, who tells her to give Corundum to someone else, as they will need Syen’s help. Syen tries to hand Coru off to another woman—but when she does, the baby starts screaming and kicking, and the entire island shakes with his tantrum. Syen takes Coru back—he immediately calms—and runs to catch up with Innon again, thinking that this is all her fault and that everything that she touches inevitably dies. Today, Syen had put on her six rings to show Alabaster her appreciation, and she now resolves to use whatever new power she has to defend her home from the Guardians.
Corundum’s orogenic power is so great that he must be kept calm, or else he might destroy the entire island—it is true that orogenic power can be dangerous. Syenite again blames herself for bringing death to those around her—and tragically, she’s partly right. The Guardians probably never would have bothered Meov if they hadn’t figured out that she and Alabaster were there. Syenite has been trained by the Fulcrum and even wears the rings of her Fulcrum ranking today, but now she vows to use all that power and skill to fight the oppressive system that created her.
Syenite reaches the comm level, where everyone is arming themselves and loading up their boats. She makes her way to the Clalsu and suddenly feels a pulse of incredibly powerful orogeny. Then, a wall of rock rises up out of the sea, sealing off the harbor so that none of the ships can leave. This is obviously Alabaster’s doing, and Syen sees an amethyst obelisk approaching in the distance, which he must be using to wield all this power. Innon and Syen feel that he is being overprotective, though, and that they should be able to sail out to meet the enemy.
Alabaster raises the wall of rock to keep the Guardians out, but also so that the Clalsu cannot sail out and fight them at sea. He is trying to protect everyone in Meov, but at the same time, he’s taking away their freedom to act as they see fit in response to this threat.
With his orogeny Innon breaks down a section of Alabaster’s wall, but more rock immediately replaces it. Meanwhile Syenite has to carry Corundum and also control all of the waves being created by these eruptions from the seafloor. She has learned from Innon to draw power even from the ocean, and to likewise manipulate the minerals and sediment in the water itself. At last, they see Alabaster high on the clifftop, using both the obelisk’s power and the life within the icy torus surrounding him. Syenite worries about him, remembering his emotional breakdowns of the past, and she gives Corundum to Innon and hurries up to find Alabaster.
Because of his upbringing and life on the island, even the untrained Innon has discovered a way of using orogeny—seizing the power of the ocean—that is unfamiliar to Syenite, again showing that the Fulcrum way is limited in its scope. Syenite knows that Alabaster is still emotionally fragile, and that fact combined with his incredible orogenic power makes him potentially dangerous even to those he’s trying to protect.
As she gets higher, Syenite can see that one of the four ships has boulders piled on its deck and is now sinking—Alabaster must have been dropping rocks onto it. Syenite tries to destroy one of the other ships with a spike of stone like she used to break the attack ship during their raid, but she finds that her orogeny cannot get too close, as there must be a Guardian on this ship as well. That’s why Alabaster has had to hurl rocks from a distance, she realizes. Syenite resolves to find her own way around this problem. She’s still too cautious to use the obelisk without Alabaster’s help, but she can draw strength from the rock of Meov itself.
The Guardians’ ability to negate orogeny makes them a difficult foe to fight, but Alabaster’s orogeny is powerful and focused enough—and he is determined and creative enough—that he is able to work around even this obstacle. Syenite knows she doesn’t have the strength yet to use an unbroken obelisk, so she reigns in her ambitions even as she’s willing to try anything to protect her home.
Getting on her hands and knees and focusing the torus of her orogeny, Syenite sends a thin line of ice down into the rock, splitting it just as one of the ships passes by. A massive column of rock breaks off from the cliff and lands directly on the Guardians’ ship, breaking it apart. Syen sees a burgundy uniform in the water and curses the Guardian, grinning to herself. Then she gets up and continues on toward Alabaster. As she gets nearer, however, something suddenly explodes all around him—Syenite realizes that it’s a cannon, a new invention from the Equatorials. She runs forward through the smoke.
The book again creates an intense, cinematic action scene that keeps the reader on their toes. Syenite uses all her resourcefulness and strength to attack the Guardians, and she takes a fierce pleasure in fighting back against those who she was once taught to submit to. Unfortunately, the Guardians have technology and resources on their side as well, maintaining and increasing their power through superior military strength.
Syenite reaches Alabaster and can tell that he’s hurt. She lingers at the edge of his torus for a moment, worried that he’ll ice her if he doesn’t know she’s there, but then rushes forward. As she crouches beside him, he asks her to promise that she won’t let the Guardians take Corundum. Syenite is confused, as Alabaster seems battered but relatively unhurt. Only then does she see what’s happening—he is struggling, but his hands and legs are being drawn down into the earth. Syenite realizes that the stone eater Antimony must be dragging him down.
Alabaster is strong enough to kill thousands of people at once, but he is also still a human being that can be wounded by weapons. Just as Antimony drew Alabaster and Syenite into the earth when Allia was destroyed, the stone eater again takes Alabaster when his life is in danger. The difference is that now he’s actively resisting her—he wants to stay and keep fighting for his family. Antimony seems to prioritize his physical safety over all else, however—she doesn’t care about the same things that he cares about.
Syenite grabs Alabaster and tries to pull him up, cursing the stone eater and sending her orogeny down into the earth, but she is unable to fight the heaviness of the mysterious thing she encounters there. Still struggling, Alabaster again begs Syenite to promise that she won’t let the Guardians take Corundum, as they both know that he will be mutilated and made into a node maintainer. Now sobbing and cursing, Syenite promises him, and then she sees Antimony’s hand emerge from the ground and gently pull Alabaster down until he has entirely disappeared. Syenite kneels weeping over the rock.
Alabaster and Syen face the tragic situation of a parent whose child now risks becoming enslaved. They both know that if the Guardians are able to get their hands on Corundum, then he will be turned into a node maintainer—a fate that is arguably worse than death. And now that Alabaster has disappeared, Syenite may have to make that choice—slavery or death for Corundum—alone.
Suddenly Syenite feels the presence of Guardians nearby, startling her from her sorrow. She looks back over the harbor and sees that the Guardians must have an orogene with them, as ice is now spreading across the ocean’s surface, stopping the ship with boulders on its deck from sinking. Clearly the orogene is drawing in a huge amount of power, and then Syen realizes what they mean to do—bring down Alabaster’s wall around the harbor. She can sess the rogga’s attack on the wall as she runs back down to the docks where the Clalsu and Innon are still there, getting ready to sail.
The Fulcrum orogene fighting along with the Guardians is another example of the oppressed working alongside their oppressors, trying to improve their personal situations by excelling within the very system that dehumanizes them. With Alabaster now gone, Meov has lost its greatest defender, but the rest of the Meovites now have a chance to fight as they see fit.
As Syenite reaches Innon and Corundum on the deck of the Clalsu, a section of Alabaster’s wall finally breaks apart. Innon tells Syen that they’re going to sail out and fight so that the rest of the Meovites can evacuate. As soon as the wall breaks, a Guardian ship enters, firing its cannons at the Clalsu. The first shot misses, but another blast strikes the ship. As the enemy craft approaches, Syenite sees three Guardians and one Fulcrum orogene on its deck. Then a third cannon strikes the Clalsu, breaking its mast, which falls onto the deck and starts to drag the ship down while also separating Syen from Innon and Coru. The Guardians’ ship approaches and Syen tries to use her orogeny against it, but she feels her power negated by the Guardians’ nearness.
The Guardians’ attack on Meov builds up to the climax of the novel, as here the action comes to a head in another dramatic series of events. The Guardians have superior technology and manpower, and use their military advantage without mercy.
The Guardians’ troops—clearly professional soldiers—start boarding the Clalsu and murdering everyone aboard. Surrounded by screaming and death, Syenite goes belowdecks and finally finds Innon and Corundum in the captain’s cabin. Innon tells her that he has to go back up and fight. Suddenly a shirtless man—a Guardian—appears behind him and grabs Innon’s head, grinning. Syenite can then feel as Innon’s orogeny, along with everything about him that makes him the person she loves, is turned evil and forced inward upon himself. In the end, Innon is just a pile on the floor, and the Guardian stands over it, covered in blood and still smiling.
In this horrifying scene, Innon dies in the same way that Alabaster’s old mentor and lover Hessionite did at the Fulcrum. The Guardian acts like the Fulcrum itself—taking all of Innon’s freedom and individuality and making it something evil that destroys him. The Guardians’ constant smiling is especially terrifying in a context like this. The oregenes have been taught to see themselves as monsters at the Fulcrum, but these moments make clear that it is the Guardians who are monsters.
Syenite then hears a familiar voice, and Schaffa appears. She grabs Corundum and backs away as he approaches. Schaffa sees the baby and asks if it’s Alabaster’s, and then he asks where Alabaster himself is. Instinctively answering whatever Schaffa asks, Syen tells him that a stone eater took Alabaster away. Schaffa looks surprised to hear this, but he quickly recovers, starts smiling again, and says that Alabaster’s child will be a “more than worthwhile replacement.” Syenite feels once more like the little girl leaving Palela, with no one to trust but this man “whose love comes wrapped in pain.”
Syenite was happy to fight the other Guardians, but she still feels a deep connection and obligation to Schaffa because of their history together. Everything that she has learned and experienced suddenly abandons her at the sound of his voice, as she seems to become Damaya again, recognizing that her love for Schaffa is wrong but loving him all the same. There is an aspect of her relationship to Schaffa that is akin to that of a child to an abusive parent.
Corundum is wailing now, and Syenite starts to say “no” over and over again, but Schaffa reminds her that she is never to say no to him. Moments seem to flash by, as Syen thinks of Innon and Alabaster at their last moments. She puts her hand over Corundum’s mouth and nose, vowing to keep him safe from a life of slavery and suffering. Schaffa tries to speak to her and Syenite explodes, cursing at him, and then she “cracks.” Feeling that it’s better for them all to die than to live as slaves, she reaches up to the amethyst obelisk, which is still hovering above as if waiting for this moment to arrive. In a single moment, she disappears into its crystal world. As Schaffa leaps toward her, her own hand presses down over Coru’s face, and then she “tears the world apart.”
This passage is the climax of the novel, as Syen makes the choice to kill her own child rather than let him live as a slave. This moment is perhaps a nod to Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, in which a formerly enslaved woman makes a similar decision to kill her child, herself based on the real-life example of Margaret Garner in the mid-1800s. At the same time that Syenite makes this devastating choice, she also finally turns against Schaffa and thus the last remnant of the abusive and oppressive system that she has tacitly accepted up until now, acknowledging that “this is not right” and finally taking drastic action to fight against this injustice. While this choice is tragically relevant to the real world, the book also uses the fantastical elements to illustrate the deep trauma and suffering that Syen is experiencing at this moment. Her personal world has ended, but because of her orogeny and sudden decision to connect to the obelisk, she tears the physical world apart as well.
The narrator remarks that this is the moment that one of the islands off the coast of the Stillness dies, but that some of its inhabitants will survive. The amethyst obelisk sends out a pulse of power and massive spines of rock surge up from the ocean floor, piercing all the ships outside Meov and extending in a line, like a spined land bridge, all the way to the mainland of the Stillness. When the ocean finally calms from this eruption of rock, there is a woman who is alive and a child who is dead. The woman will join other survivors and make her way back to the Stillness, the narrator says, where she will wander for years.
As he did in the first chapter, the narrator here shifts from a figurative personal apocalypse to a more literal, large-scale one. Syenite has just been forced to make the most horrifying decision that any parent could imagine, and her response to this can only be described on a seismic scale. Notably, after this event, the protagonist is no longer referred to as Syenite, but merely a nameless woman wandering alone—someone who will eventually take on the new identity of Essun.
This is the point at which the narrator finds this woman, for many of his kind are drawn to the pulse from the obelisk and the person who caused it. He was the first to find her, and he fought off the others. He watched her join a comm called Tirimo and guarded her until she finally left, 10 years later. Referring to the woman now in the second-person, he says that she is special, and that when he finally met her, he introduced himself as Hoa.
Hoa finally reveals himself as the novel’s narrator, suggesting that he is personally telling this story to Essun herself. Why or when Hoa is telling this story about Essun to Essun is not revealed until the end of the Broken Earth trilogy, but the overarching idea is that Hoa is essentially explaining the different aspects of Essun’s own identity and history to her. The narrator has always been his own character with his own unique voice, but now there is a familiar face behind that voice as well—though his long-term goals are left entirely unclear.