Tricking readers into acceptance

OK, to start this post off, I have to say that it is only for people who have already read The Fifth Season. Haven’t read it yet? This post is not for you.

No, seriously. If you haven’t read TFS, scram.

Clip of Bruce Lee glaring at people

Oh, so you wanna be hard headed.

clip of the olsen twins as small children asking ARE YOU SURE?

OK. But I am not responsible for any damage done to your reading experience, if you continue. And if I may say, TFS is a lot more fun with its surprises unspoiled. But from here forth I’m going to assume you’ve read it.


So, for those of you who actually did read TFS, you know by now that the three PoVs of the story — Damaya, Syenite, and Essun — are all the same person.

I’ve gotten a lot of questions from folks about why I did this, and whether the three perspectives are supposed to represent the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone of womanhood, or something like that. To be perfectly honest, I’m not good at sussing out themes in my own work. I’m too close to it, at least until after I’ve had a few years to think about it, and even then reviewers usually spot things I don’t (like the Maiden/Mother/Crone thing, which totally was not in my head at all, but given how much Greek mythology I’ve read there was probably some kind of subconscious influence). I can only tell you what I intended.

Which was actually really simple: I wanted readers to accept a protagonist who was an “unlikeable” fortysomething woman of color.

I and other writers have talked about the difficulty of creating a “Strong Female Protagonist ™” — but this is the wrong focus, on the wrong problem. The core of the problem isn’t actually that women are harder to write. The problem is that readers have been trained to like women less. Writers have to work against a weight of deeply-embedded societal bigotry which literally, actually causes readers to have trouble empathizing with anyone who’s not a straight cis white guy. We see this empathy failure everywhere and not just in fiction; for example, people actually have a harder time perceiving women’s pain versus that of men. And everything gets worse as you add intersections: race if the character isn’t white, gender identity if the woman isn’t cis, age if the woman isn’t young, and so on. If you really hate someone, you’ll find even their laughter a grating irritant, and a challenge that must be put down. And the less you see a particular kind of woman in media, the harder a time writers are going to have with depicting her in an empathetic way… in part because readers won’t know how to empathize with her. She will literally be alien to them — or worse, readers will layer their own preexisting beliefs about that “type” of character onto her. Which means that in a society drenched in historical bigotries, a character who is brown-skinned and dredlocked and described as physically imposing and who is too old and “flabby” to be sexually interesting to a lot of readers… well. We know some of the names readers will call her, in their heads. We don’t need to say them out loud.

So given this reality, a writer tackling a protagonist who exists in this “alien” intersection has some hard choices to make.

Do I say “fuck it” and write her the way I goddamn well please without making any attempt to bridge the empathy gap? I’ve done that before, several times now — because after all if we don’t, how can we expect change? Empathy is learned through exposure. But then I have to endure without comment as some of my characters are judged more harshly than others because of their race and gender. Do I acknowledge the problem through emphasis, thus driving home to readers the fact that their assumptions are the problem, and not anything about the character? I’ve played with this a little in my short fiction, but since most of my fiction doesn’t involve Earth or Earth people, I don’t have a lot of opportunities to do that. Do I just give in to readers’ warped expectations, and start writing nothing but meek, one-dimensional background white women being endlessly abused in medieval McEurope? HAHAHAno. Next question.

The truth is that there is no one right way to deal with this problem. But I knew it was going to impact Essun, no matter what.

So I decided to trick readers into caring about her.

OK, this is hyperbole. First off, displaced temporal narratives aren’t exactly groundbreaking or new — not used often in SFF, I’ll admit, but not unheard-of, either. Second off, writers mess with readers’ perceptions all the time. That’s what we do. The whole point of tense and voice and person is to draw you into (or push you out of) a character’s perspective in different ways. It’s not much of a trick if everybody’s doing it.

That said… I expected people to hate Essun. She’s so many things that readers dislike sight-unseen and story unread: a middle-aged mother, a collaborator, a revolutionary, a mass murderer, a woman who refuses to be sexy or nice. She’s traumatized for much of The Fifth Season, and she displays this in ways that don’t tug the heartstrings, because trauma doesn’t usually look sympathetic. It’s angry. It’s distant. It’s violent, and sometimes harmful. I wanted readers to feel this intensely, but I also wanted them to feel the disassociation of her, the not-all-here of her, which is why I chose to use second person. I thought her story was interesting — trying to find her daughter and deal with the apocalypse to end all apocalypses — but despite this, I wasn’t sure that would be enough to get her over the empathy hurdle. I suspected readers would find it easier to relate to an innocent child in a horrific situation, and a snarky, frustrated young woman journeying across a strange land with an irritating companion… even though these were literally the same person as Essun. And I hoped that by the time people twigged to the fact that they were all one woman, I could effectively “cash in” on the empathic capital built by the younger versions of Essun, and transfer it to the her.

Because after all, Essun has all of Damaya’s wonder and thwarted hope, all of Syenite’s sarcasm and need for purpose, plus her own driving will and old sorrow. Essun isn’t friendly, isn’t gentle, but now you know what made her the way she is. Essun does terrible things, but is she a terrible person? And if you find yourself judging her more harshly than her other selves, or even other characters in the story… why?

Let me know what you think of her.

46 thoughts on “Tricking readers into acceptance”

  1. I found Essun the most interesting from the beginning, because it’s the unlikeable fortysomething woman of colour that we don’t often get to see. Outside of Calamity from Nalo Hopkinson’s amazing “New Moon’s Arms,” I’m not sure I can name another in SFF, and Calamity is a cranky modern grandma, nothing like quiet, determined Essun, whose weaknesses I thought, even without the backstory, were completely understandable.

    Damaya does have a bright, talented child’s appeal, and Syenite the appeal of a smart, snarky young woman forced to breed lovelessly. In the last 6 months, Naomi Novik’s “Uprooted” has opened with a bright, talented child, and Glenda Larke’s “The Dagger’s Path” features a young woman forced to breed lovelessly. Juliet Marillier’s “Dreamer’s Pool” stars an unlikeable fortysomething white woman. I loved all three books, they are clever and compelling and beautifully written, but I’m at the point in my life where people who listened to me because I was a bright, talented child, or because I was a smart, snarky young woman, have stopped listening. Traits that are forgivable in the young are plain unlikeable in middle-age, apparently.

    So, Essun makes me huggle your book especially tightly to my chest. (Juliet’s book, too.) I wish you were wrong about needing to trick readers into acceptance. How can you know, though?

  2. I am so glad I had read and loved your earlier books, because usually second person is an immediate turn-off for me. For this, it worked, and I’ve been trying to articulate why ever since I realized it truly worked for me. It may be the combination of the fact that while Essun dies have deep knowledge of the world around her, she has almost none about what’s next and how she should cope. She isn’t an immediately sympathetic character, but that’s okay – I do love an unreliable narrator, and to get an unreliable narrator in the second person? New experience for me, even if the narrator turned out to be someone other than who I had thought. (I am super proud of myself for cottoning on to the missing moon when it was first alluded to.)
    I’m going to reread this soon to process it all with hindsight, which I think will be a fascinating experience – looking with intention for the commonalities and hints now that I know what to look for.
    Can’t wait for book 2.

  3. You already know how much I love you, your characters, your world and everything. If I didn’t love you already, I would now for this line here, “because trauma doesn’t usually look sympathetic. It’s angry. It’s distant. It’s violent, and sometimes harmful.” Because yes.

  4. I read this book at an interesting time in my life. I have a 6-year-old son and a 4-month-old infant. It’s not a comfortable book to read when you have children, much less an infant. However, possibly because of that, Essun was the easiest for me to relate to. Though, I also appreciated Syenite’s rage about being forced to have children and then ambivalence towards being a mother after it becomes more of a choice. Not all women are born wanting children of their own nor are completely filled by them and there aren’t a lot of books that recognize it.

    As an aside, I probably couldn’t have read the book, particularly the first chapter, if Essun hadn’t be in second person.

  5. I loved Essun – from the beginning (though I was thrilled when I figured out that the three were one… nice little reader’s prize). I am so tired of women being “nice” rather than real – she was very real to me. I could see myself feeling as she did were I in her shoes. I identified with her, as a 40-something woman. Even if I’m not a mother, or of color, or able to move mountains.

    Having Essun’s rich backstory – with each phase handled separately – enriched my understanding of her complex life.

    I broke my rule and read the start of a trilogy before the others are out. I suppose it’s nice to have something to anticipate.

  6. Hmm, I don’t know if I like Essun, but I certainly understand where she’s coming from. She’s a strong character, very damaged, and flawed.

    But then, I tend to prefer messy people in fiction…having said that, I detested almost every single character in Grossman’s The Magicians, and most people love how unpleasant they are, so…?

  7. I think that from all three perspectives my favourite was probably Essun because she was so different from everything I had ever read before. She was since the beginning experiencing something so hard, moving and complicated to understand that I was really impressed in how much I cared.

    I am usually the type of reader that needs almost a hundred pages to really be intrigued by a character and it’s why I have loads of echues with short fiction but here, right at the first paragraph almost, I was hooked.

    The fact that her parts as Essun were in second person was really well handled because it really allowed me, as a reader, to imagine something that never happened to me (and hopefully never will) and to feel almost like I was living it in a way. I was really impressed as how I could relate to the emotions she felt without feeling frustated by the fact that I couldn’t understand her reactions (as it usually happen with me and a character change because of an accident or important trauma in his life).

  8. I think she worked perfectly. But then, I’m an old tabletop gamer and choose-your-own-adventure, so second person is my cue to role play the eff out of the character in front of me, which I did. I actually enjoy second person narrative for just that reason. So I might not be the best perspective.

  9. I assume you know something about your audience, and ability to identify with characters, and all that. But, really, you give us a person whose child has just been murdered by her spouse, that child’s other parent — and you worry that we won’t empathize? Like Cheri, I’m not a mother or a person of color. Maybe it is just because I’m older (than you, than Cheri). But I’m trying to think back to my adolescent and early adult self, and I think that even then I would have been willing to cut Essun a lot of slack. Because, my goodness, the pain that must involve.

    Today, I think that using the second person for Essun’s narration is a perfect fit; back then I wouldn’t have recognized how very true it is to the way she was feeling and approaching the world, but I think that reading her in the second person might have taught me a lot about the experience of trauma.

    So, anyway, I don’t know whether the “trickery” was necessary. It wasn’t for me. But I had a lot of fun during the first half of the novel trying to figure out whether Damaya, Syenite, and Essun were living between different Seasons, or what. I figured that you were showing us the development either of how the society of the world worked (so different time periods) or of a single person (so if they were living right before/after the beginning of the same Season they had to be the same person, especially once the geography started to make it clear that there was no way they could meet up). And I loved trying to figure that out. So even if it wasn’t necessary for reader empathy, it added a lot to the book, IMO.

  10. I read it when it came out. I haven’t reviewed it yet, because I was trying to figure out what the sticking point for me was. I have read every one of your previous novels, and, in fact, have nominated every one of them for Hugos and Nebulas. It is my belief that you are probably the most original writer of fantasy at this time.

    I would give this one a 4.9 on the 5.0 scale. But it wasn’t about Essun et al. I figured out about halfway through that the three women were the same one. I thought about maiden/mother/crone– and maybe because I am a pagan, it was natural and normal to look at a character that way. And no, Essun et al. didn’t repel me. I rather liked all of them, actually.

    I really liked the prismatic viewpoints. For some reason, this book reminded me a great deal of Chip Delaney’s _Dahlgren_. I don’t really know why–it was a “flavor” thing.

    Reading it as an editor (which I cannot stop doing now having been an editor for so long) the only thing that came out and slapped me in the face was a certain awkwardness in the way you introduced the scenes where she has a polyamorous relationship with a bisexual man and a gay man. There’s nothing wrong with the relationship (my beloved daughter is in one), but somehow, it stuck out of the narrative in a way that no other part of the story did.

    I compare it to the way Vonda N. McIntyre handled a similar scene in _Dreamsnake_, which flowed much better.

    But yanno, if that’s the only nitpick I can find, I guess I’m looking for nomination forms again.

  11. I’ve only just finished TFS (as in, read it once and the book is still sitting on the hutch because I’m thinking that I need to re-read it before I take it back to library because circumstances are such that I can’t just buy my own copy right now) but I have to say that Essun was a very sympathetic character to me — there were enough indications that she was the way she was because she had gone through a lot. And as a cranky forty-something-year-old woman myself, I can’t promise I’d behave differently had I suffered anywhere near the trauma she had and had the power to react as she did.

  12. I was SO pleased when I figured out they were the same character. I loved every single one of Essun’s incarnations, if we can call them as such. I loved the fact that you used these three points of view to show us her character arc and how she’s come to be the Essun she is now, the one we meet at the start of the novel. I am not a person of colour, I am not a parent, and yet I identified with her so strongly because I am in my forties and have sort of now come to realise that no, I don’t have to be the nice person people expect me to be. I am allowed to be revolutionary, and be a little different and break that mould. And that’s why I identified with Essun so much – she tries to compromise and be the same as everyone else in the Fulcrum but once she’s outside those doors travelling with Baster all that fake pretence falls away and really, it hit home. To me it’s all about the character assuming a new role at each new stage in her life. Like we all do. And yes, the trinity played a big role for me too, as that is what I assumed you were doing, mother, maiden, crone and how the world at large perceived Essun as each of these…but also how she perceived herself.

    I applaud you, you crazy writerly woman, and just: thank you for writing these amazing books with vast diverse characters and for challenging perceptions. Much power to your writerly … arms? brain? :D

  13. Wow, that sucks that that’s a consideration you have to take into account. (Although, on the other hand, thank god, because otherwise the world wouldn’t have this exact book.) The level of empathy fail someone would have to have to judge any of these characters harshly makes me cringe. I mean even if you don’t *like* them, surely you can at least see where they’re coming from. Jeez.

    Anyway, I love strong females, the stronger the better, the more the better. I’m trying to finish a novel about an all-female group of mercenary soldiers, so that kind of tells you where my taste lies. In fact while I was reading TFS, before I figured out the “trick,” I found myself thinking about how awesome it was to finally, finally have a multi-POV high fantasy novel with ALL female main characters. Not just all female, but all smart, badass female characters. With gay/bi/trans folks casually brought in as important supporting characters. Is this what my favorite genre feels like when I don’t have a constant background noise of “these female characters aren’t cool or plentiful enough” echoing in the back of my head the whole time I’m reading? I mean, AWESOME. I feel like a freshwater fish who is finally finding out what a completely non-salty pond is like. If that makes any sense.

    And I still feel that way, even though I know it’s just one main character. You still felt this female was important enough to basically tell us her entire life story–a very complex life story, at that. I love non-temporal storytelling, and I thought you used it very effectively to triple down on character development.

    I did find it easier to identify with Syenite than the other two, because I did not have a traumatic childhood and I have never had kids or watched my world fall apart around me. Because of where I am in life, Syenite’s constant realization that the world is even shittier than she thought really resonated. But I was never reluctant to leave her when the story went to another section, and never eager to leave the other two to get back to Syenite. Compare with my reading of Game of Thrones, where I basically read Arya & Dany’s chapters and then went back and read the rest of it. I didn’t even realize Ned was being set up as a main character because I didn’t care about him much/at all.

    So, basically, I am not the reader you have to trick. But I am the reader who is suuuuper happy to have this book. May it spawn many more epic fantasies dominated by legitimately strong female characters.

  14. I’m with nm on having found Essun immediately sympathetic. I mean, I’m not that up on popular culture, but I’m pretty sure that if you give her motivations and her methods– based in muscles and guns rather than orogeny, admittedly– to a white guy, you get a modern successful action movie protagonist.

  15. Hm. Hmm. Hmmm. Maybe because I’m a cranky forty-something mother of two, I had no trouble empathizing with Essun right off the bat, and I didn’t see any of the things she did as terrible (with one exception), but as perfectly reasonble given her situation. I loved the book even as it infuriated me, even when I was furious for two completely opposing reasons, and things that usually infuriate me didn’t with this book. Like the jumping around in time, which I usually find terribly confusing, but using different names sorted that right out. And like Liz, I was so pleased when I realized they were the same person.

    I’m dying to reread it – can’t right now because my tablet’s bricked and I’m in Ecuador for another two weeks – but a little scared to, at the same time, because I don’t know if I can handle having my hand broken again like that, it was so scary and painful the first time. So yeah, no trouble empathizing with these characters at all, at all.

  16. I just finished last night, and had a hard time sleeping afterwards – as a mom to an almost-three-year-old son and as a mom who has experienced, at least in a small way, the grief of losing a child (first son was stillborn at 5.5 months gestation), I absolutely empathized with Essun right off the bat – the descriptions of her grief, her actions really resonated with me. I figured out that Damaya=Syenite well before I guessed that Essun was part of the equation as well. But while reading I was fully engaged with whichever identity I was reading about in the moment. I really enjoyed the book. Still processing though, I think.

  17. I love your books! And this one is as wonderful, engaging, intriguing and riveting as the other books that you have written. When I finally realized that all three characters were the same person, I thought “Brilliant”!! I love your characters, for their complexity, their “realness” and the raw honesty with which you portray them. Are you writing another book in this series? I anxiously await more wonderful stories from you. You’re writings are a treasure!

  18. I’m with everyone who finds Essun immediately sympathetic – although that 1st section is hard to read due to what she and her children have suffered/are still suffering. I think using the second person works very, very well in conveying her dissociative state – I mean, who wouldn’t be feeling that way, given the circumstances she’s in? (Spoiler: I just watched both seasons of “Broadchurch,” which is about a very similar situation. Anyone who does not identify with the 2 female leads is just not in this universe, or not human, or something.)

    ISTM that you seeded enough small details/clues in the early sections of both Damaya’s and Syenite’s narratives for us to be able to draw the lines. Not sure when it 1st hit me, but pretty early on, I think, and that makes the Essun segments all the more heartbreaking, in many respects, because the character has been through these kinds of losses and traumas multiple times.

    Ultimately, all 3 narrative threads seem – to me, anyway – to convey the sense of characters who somehow keep on keeping on, and even though the book is dark, I couldn’t help reading on an on and on. (Kind of like binge-watching Broadchurch, or Forbrydelsen – the Danish series on which The Killing was based.) i found it all extremely compelling because i could identify with the character(s) on so many levels.

    (Note: maybe this has something to do with age/life experience? I’m in my 50s, and if you’ve [plural] gotten that far without being able to empathize with others due to losses in your own life, then I think something is wrong.)

  19. Just wanted to chime in quickly to respond to Mr. Boyles above, and say that I was absolutely delighted to see that relationship. The ethical nonmonogamists among us are rarely represented (positively) in literature, and this particular relationship felt really natural and healthy to me.

    As to the character triptych, I also had a fun time trying to suss out the relationship between the three along the way. I think I found Syenite the least relatable of the three; maybe it’d be more accurate to say that I found her the most distractingly tropey.

    Regarding the use of second person, what I found most interesting about that it speaks so well to the dissociative nature of trauma, the way it can really force apart the you-who-does from the you-who-watches-you.

  20. The way you kind of saved the worst that Syenite experienced as a young woman until the latter part of the book is very thoughtfully done, and made me want to read the whole thing from the beginning again, because it casts a whole new light on Essun. Am planning on doing just that, but man! Those deaths and the grief and anger (etc.) are hard to take, so I’m giving myself a bit of a break before my 1st re-read.

    Also, I like those ominous (if enigmatic) quotes from ancient sources that are sprinkled throughout the text. Talk about foreshadowing! (Also, that 1st hint about the moon, though I had already been wondering why they talked about stars but not…)

    As to the people who have what sound like pretty trollish reactions to your characters, I can’t even. Really.

  21. I didn’t have any trouble with empathizing with Essun right from the start. I *have* been reading a number of books recently with potentially unlikeable main characters, so maybe that’s why. Or… I’ll admit it, I have some anger issues. So when she lost control of her anger in Tirimo I felt I understood that.

    It was Syenite I had trouble sympathizing with at first, because I read her as seemingly motivated most by ambition.

    Anyway, I’d also like to take this opportunity to praise the sense of impending doom for Syenite the book builds up towards the end. Once I knew she was Essun, it was clear something terrible was going to happen to her and to Meov. It was so awful and so powerful and so very, very well done.

  22. Like many of the previous commenters, I also had no trouble sympathizing/empathizing with Essun. Particularly because her story opens with such a traumatic moment in her life. Coming home to find your child murdered is a parent’s worst nightmare, I’m sure. So the knowledge, right off the bat, that this person is going through something truly, truly awful, puts a lot of her subsequent actions into a very sharp relief. Did I think it was sad and horrible that she iced the comm leader who tried to help her peacefully leave the comm? Yes. However, it was also pretty damn clear that it wouldn’t have come to that if the other people in the comm had just let her leave. Her violence was in direct response to having violence committed against her (or at least attempted). Furthermore, taken in the larger context of the fact that her unconscious orogeny also saved the comm from the worst of the shockwave that destroyed their neighbors in the valley over, the wall guards’ actions become even more infuriating. I didn’t blame Essun one bit for doing what she did in that scene.

    Throughout the book we see Essun behaving like that, in each of her identities. As Damaya she refuses to take the bullying of her peers lying down. As Syenite she refuses to be forced back into slavery and used as a human broodmare by the Fulcrum. Even when she murdered Corundum, I completely understood why (and I admit maybe I’m more primed to accept that kind of choice from a character than I otherwise might be because of other books I’ve read [“Beloved” comes to mind, for example] where the characters do the same thing for the same reason).

    Ultimately, I felt like it was absolutely crystal clear that Essun’s most shocking actions were directly in response to horrible things she experienced. I don’t think it should be hard for a reader to accept that people in extreme situations make extreme choices. If Essun had been treated with kindness and respect throughout her life, she wouldn’t have needed to do any of those things. And I get the impression that that’s one of the main points of the story.

    One more thing I want to mention is that it was actually really great to read a book where the main female character responds to unjust treatment by fighting back. As a teen I got so, so sick of books where bullied/mistreated young women dealt with their mistreatment by shrinking, crying, and/or lamenting how unfair things are, but ultimately doing nothing. It’s not a great comparison, because Essun–in all of her indentities–has her hands tied in ways that those protagonists in the books I read as a teen did not. But even as Damaya, when she orchestrated the take down of her bullies, I was glad to read that she wasn’t going to resign herself to being the class’s punching bag. And that’s one of the things that makes Essun such a remarkable character, because that attitude never leaves her. Even as she struggles through terrible trauma, she refuses to resign herself. She fights back. Sometimes it’s brutal, but she is responding to brutality. So I actually think Essun is pretty fantastic, and I can’t wait to read more about her in the books to come.

  23. Well, but (as we come to see over the course of the book) one of the reasons it’s so heartbreaking that Essun kills her neighbors — especially the neighbor who has known her secret and kept it — is that in becoming Essun, in leaving off being Syenite, she has wanted to be someone who doesn’t ice people. It’s understandable that she does it, but it’s also a complete defeat. Better than letting the neighbors kill her? Sure. But not (for me) a “Brava! She fought back!” moment.

    And I second what numo says about the foreshadowing re: the moon. The second I saw the people had destroyed god’s favorite something-or-other, I got the shivers.

  24. OH my god. The things you find when you wander.

    No, I haven’t read this book; yes, I loved the Olsen Twins and Bruce Lee blog images at the door. God, I hope you win lots and lots of awards in that boys world of boys worlds you’re already winning in. And isn’t it funny I just (for the first time) read the beginning of “The Secret Garden” where–yes, you are soo right–a nasty little girl starts the story. We can HANDLE those, can’t we? But age that girl by forty years, nobody wants to know.

    Historical bigotries. I love that phrase. Thank you.

    And yes, if one more person shows me an article on creating ‘strong female protagonists’, I’m gonna scream. You nailed it, my goddess; it’s about readers having been trained to like women less. And me, as a writer, being told to stick to dem ole stereotypes.

    Good on you, writer goddess.

    Heather *shakes your hand*

  25. Although I’m not a mother and am about a decade younger than Essun, I have wanted to read a fantasy novel starring a middle-aged mother since my mid-20s. Because, I mean, that’s who my mom is, that’s who I will (might? dunno about children) be some day. And I can’t imagine a more dangerous protagonist than a mother in a fantasy world who’s lost her children. I feel like this is the book I’ve just been waiting for. And not just because of Essun, although, yes, I was absolutely thrilled (especially when I figured out relatively early on that Damaya’s and Syenite’s stories clearly took place at a different time than Essun’s so it would make the most narrative sense if they were all the same person–which meant that they weren’t stealing her story, they were her story, which was a relief). Really everything about this book, from the science-based magic system to the apocalypse to the characters with mental illness, and also pirates!, was EXACTLY what I wanted to read and thought I never would (not all in one book, anyway) and I’m so happy. Thank you.

  26. Nora- I finally finished and I’m glad I behalved myself and heeded your warning at the start.

    I confess that I actually related to Essun better. She’s the one I liked first. Her pain pulled me in and maybe it is because I am an overweight 40-something mother, but her losses pulled me in stronger ways than the other losses. I was angry at Damaya’s mother for discarding her. I was actually a little angry with Syenite herself for seeming so cold.

    But Essen, I will admit became even more likeable to me when the convergence happened. She has so much depth, so much going on. But I suspect I found her more relatable from the beginning because I have my own children, and my oldest is the same age as the daughter she is seeking.

    I was blown away by realizing they were the same. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that they were not in the same timeline, but I felt a little silly when I finally realized they were all the same person. Before I had assumed that the three narratives were going to meet when the characters met.

    Well done.

  27. Thank you so much for this book, which I finished this evening instead of doing my work or going out or anything else I might otherwise have done. Totally worth it. Wonderful story, amazing world-building (which your previous work led me to expect, but still) terrific treatment of marginalization, and lovely inclusion of gender and race and so many things that could have been done poorly but were instead brilliantly handled. Someone should write a paper on the critique of modern western/USian civilization in this book. Not my field, so not me, but someone should do it.
    I did suspect they were one woman fairly early on. Not sure why, just a suspicion.
    I’m a child-free woman over 40, so take this with the attendant biases, but of the three, I found Syenite the most difficult to like, because she was so authentically a smart, ambitious twenty-something. Damaya I felt sorry for and related to aspects of, but her story is a bit more conventional than those of the other two. Syenite and Essun break the mold–theirs are stories less commonly told. It strikes me that at the end of Syenite’s story, she is Essun-a traumatized mass murderer (and I, for one, liked her better by then). But Syenite’s story tells us how she gets there. Essun is pushed back into the emotional place where Syenite’s story ends, by a repeat of the trauma that ends that story–the death of her family and community, for which she is partially responsible.
    Anyway. Brilliant book. I hope Essun’s husband somehow didn’t kill their son. Though, of course, she herself killed her other son. In any case, I hope we get to find out in the sequel. But whatever you choose to do with the next book, thank you. This was fantastic.

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  29. I think a lot of Syenite’s “colness” is a kind of bravado, intended to hide pain from others, and, of course, herself. I liked her regsrdless, even when she was grating. I think it also is directly related to the enforced “breeding” (who wouldn’t react that way, if caught in that situation?), enslavement in genersl – and the fact that she has bern stuck in the closed world of the Fulcrum for so long. It’s all she knows.

    Besides, she’s only 19 or 20.

  30. Lindsay Elizabeth

    First of all, can I just say that I LOVE all of your books.

    I had to comment on this, because it’s fascinating to hear what you thought going into this. It’s especially interesting because I empathized with Essun immediately. I am a white 20-something cis-woman, and I carry around many subconscious biases from that, which I promise I do my best to combat… At first I would think that I would be more interested in the younger characters. But I’m incredibly close to my mother, (and have a not so great relationship with my father), so I was just primed to defend Essun, who’s actions I saw as understandable in pursuit of her child. However, you point it out, I do think that your use of second-person did help me connect even more.

    I had the most trouble connecting with Syenite. I still liked her, but I wasn’t as connected emotionally. And I figured out that she and Damaya were the same pretty quickly, but somehow didn’t connect that to Essun until the middle of the book (I blame your awesome writing and how quickly I was trying to devour everything).

    Anyway, I thought that you had split up the viewpoints to get us sympathizing with Damaya and Essun, and to make us understand her actions as Syenite, when she kills her child to save him. It’s interesting to hear that you were coming from a different direction. Either way, it worked.

  31. As a black man, I immediately connected with Essun because if the tragedy of a POC mother losing her child to discrimination isn’t timely and immediate I don’t know what is. The harshness that others might have perceived in her is a harshness I have felt within myself many times over. And it seems the more I learn about the history of my people and country, the more that harshness threatens to surface. And Essun is a fully awakened woman beat down by decades of discrimination. This is what I think people fail to realize when POC talk about cultural trauma.

    Years and years of compounded discrimination do not a happy, go lucky person make. It’s a miracle that most 40-something black women are even capable of surviving in today’s society with a modicum of happiness. So no, for me, Essun was almost like family. I connected with her. I ached for her, particularly at the end.

    Because man…there just seems to be no end to the grief this woman must endure. It speaks to a terrible societal lack of empathy if someone can’t find something to connect to with Essun. But as you’ve already deftly pointed out; that’s the reality we’re operating in.

  32. Essun is the woman I grew into. She is the woman who finally realized her own pain was not a reason to let the world die around her or let herself die. She is the woman who decided it was alright to extend caring but on her own terms and without thought to how anyone else might think of it. How could anyone not like, love, want to emulate that?

    Now…I’m going to need you to write faster because I need more and soon.

    Thanks just all to pieces.

  33. I’ve got two kids (5 year old son and 10 year old daughter), so I had absolutely no trouble identifying with and sympathizing with Essun.

  34. I’m sorry, but I guessed all three were one and the same within…like…the first few chapters. I wasn’t absolutely certain until about halfway through, but… Yeah… I’m getting too good at picking out foreshadows.

    (Tonkee actually being Binof though? Hoa being the narrator? Those ones threw me for a loop.)

    On Essun–c’mon, cut your readers some slack! This is a woman who just had one child murdered and another child kidnapped *by her own husband*. How can anyone *not* empathize? I’m young, and white, and not a mother myself, but I’m also an incredibly emotional and sensitive person, and I can imagine the kind of pain Essun would feel. More than that, I can feel it right along side her, as you pull us into it with the second-person. No, I didn’t like it when she iced all of the comm members before she left, even the ones who helped her, but… Well, they’re the ones who tried to fire a damn crossbow at her when they should have known better. Those idiots got what was coming to them, although it was still tragic that the innocents were killed alongside them (and after we discover the pain that Essun had previously been in, we look back at that moment of personal failure and feel an even heavier ache for the tragedy).

    Another thing: I’ve never read anyone use second-person the way you did, and I was fascinated from the very start–not just with Essun, but with the style of her passages. I spent half the time reading The Fifth Season’s second-person internally screaming “HOW IS SHE DOING THIS?” But that’s probably more of a writer-thing than a reader-thing, trying to gauge other writer’s styles and see how they do something different from you. Your style choice–for me–was as much of a hook as the character and the horrific situation you’d placed her in.

    Anyway. I loved The Fifth Season and am anxiously awaiting the sequel! :) Time to hand it off to my mother so she can know my misery when I read its last few sentences. That cliffhanger was mean. Very, *very* good…but mean.

  35. I found Syenite to be by far the most interesting character, or version should I say, out of the three. Essun’s story never fully clicked with me, for the reason I think of her disassociation with herself; she was never fully there, like you mentioned, and so the gravity of what she was going through never fully resonated with me, despite the horrible things she went through.

    Syenite on the other hand, was the character I felt I *knew* the most. Her ambition and drive were one thing, yes, but what I LOVED, and was so so so happy to see was the fact that Syenite never, at least from how I read it, “fell in love” with Alabaster. I feel I have read so many stories that start the way Syenite’s did — with a man she didn’t want to be with, her opposite, snarky, blah blah. And yet they always ended up falling for the guy, and it’s a happy ending and meh I don’t have time for that. It was such an incredible change of pace for her to continue her on-the-surface dislike of him, and even though she may have grown accustomed to his presence, and of course loved the general family they had together, she never fell for him.

    Likewise I felt Syenite developed the most maturely; by that, I don’t count Damaya as she just grew out of childhood, and changing comes with that (i.e the scared girl to the curious girl). Syenite went from ambitious, generally self-preserving and an overall negative person to someone who I could resonate with as she grew to love her child, and the life she had eventually worked for. (Plus, that scene with the Guardian in Allia when she went all *fuck the man* and used the power of the obelisk I mean I literally blessed your name in that moment) I mean Syenite was just such a badass.

    Butttttt getting back to your original post, I do understand what you did with the empathy thing; it is easy to empathize with a lonely and terrified child, and from that to a young woman enslaved and trying to do her best to break free, being forced against her will to have a child and finally losing that child etc. With Essun, it STARTS OFF with a dead child, with no inkling of who this woman is or why we should care (note: I’m not a parent, so I don’t have the natural dread of losing a child) and so the overall build-up of why we SHOULD care is incredibly innovative and refreshing.

    Okay, I’m done. But can I just saw you’re literally the best and keep doing you cuz you’re frickin awesome. Literally. Everything I’ve read from you is just amazing and whenever I am asked to mention a favorite author at the beginning of my college English classes (all the BS “getting to know you”) I always mention you, for your inclusion of mythology which I feel isn’t utilized enough, your writing style which I can’t say enough about, and your take on issues such as sexuality, race, gender, age, and class. Everything is just so amazing about your writing and I absolutely cannot wait for The Obelisk Gate!

    P.S Yeine will always be my favorite.

    P.P.S The only major work I haven’t read is the Awakened Kingdom and your collection of “Inheritance” short stories. Can I only get these via the Inheritance Cycle as the individual novel or e-book, or can I get them separate? KEEP WRITING!!!!!!!!

  36. Being 58 I did not find any of the three characters that turned out to be one character unlikeable. When the reveal happened and I finally saw the three as different ages of the same person it seemed to me to be as natural as my own life. No one is the same as a child as they are as an adolescent as they are as an adult. Heck in some ways we are different every day and some times minute to minute, depending on the circumstances.

    The belief that we are SOMEONE and that the SOMEONE never changes is sublimely ridiculous.

    In any really good novel the characters are profoundly affected by whatever the agon of the story happens to be. The struggle makes them change and if it doesn’t, the book is flat, uninteresting, boring even. We love redemption of a ‘bad’ character, we weep with the destruction of a ‘good’ character, we love a happy ending, our compassion is piqued by a character that overcomes adversity and ‘gets back’ at another character, even violently, but for the right reasons. All of these things would change an individual if they occurred in real life and they should change characters in novels.

    Although presented out of order in time, what you wrote was organically perfect. The building of this woman from child to adolescent to adult produced a character whose actions were true to the history that she carried within her and made for marvelous insight into how she became who she was and what as well as who had brought her to this place in her life.

    NOW PUBLISH THE SECOND NOVEL ALREADY! Sorry, reading your book has changed me into a rapacious reader and unreasonable adventurer who wants to get going already.

  37. I have to be honest, her skin tone didn’t stick to me for whatever reason. Alabaster’s did, and I really loved him. I related to his feeling of disconnection due to feeling like he’s not experiencing the world in the same way as everyone else. I was heart broken to realize they were all one person, because that meant Alabaster had to go. Essun was an interesting dynamic character, and there was never a point where I found her unlikable, except for that first mass murdery part. It was understandable, just not ideal.

    As a side note, I pretty much assume any fantasy or sci fi book I read is from the same 30 year old white guy. Nice to see a change of pace that is one of the most powerful works of fiction I’ve experienced in a long long time. Good on ya, I’m haunted.

  38. I keep trying to elucidate my thoughts about this book, but I keep flailing around with words instead. Basically I empathised with all incarnations of Essun, and I can’t wait for the next book. Can’t believe you got me to tolerate 2nd person! That was the real hurdle, I was invested in Essun from the very beginning. Actually, no, the real hurdle was the earthquakes. Having lived through a major one recently it was a bit close to home. I did like that you mentioned aftershocks, though, which no one else seems to mention. And looking at tall buildings with distrust.

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  40. Hi!!

    First off, I’m so sorry for hijacking this thread, but comments are no longer open on the relevant one, and I thought facebooking was maybe too forward.

    Anyway, to the point, I really love your stories, BUT the e-books (the awakened kingdom and shades in shadow) are not available for customers in NZ. I’m sure you don’t have much say in this matter, but if there was anything you could do to make them available outside the US/Canada/UK markets, I would SUPER appreciate it.

  41. Hi kr,

    Unfortunately that isn’t something I can control. Basically, in order for my ebooks to be sold in NZ, a NZ publisher will need to buy the rights to distribute them there. Probably wouldn’t cost them much, since the book is already in the right language and all, but I suppose they would have to feel that the investment was worth it — and so far no publisher has. We’ll have to hope that changes. I don’t know why it works that way; I just know that it does. Sorry. :(

  42. I loved Essun from the beginning — the middle-aged woman who’s just lost her child was pretty heartbreaking, and it took a while to realize that the trauma she was dealing with was older and harsher than that. As you jumped between viewpoint characters she was always the one I wanted to come back to, even as Damaya and Syenite went through their more … expected? … SF growth arcs. It took me a while to figure out what you were doing — wait, I thought the Fulcrum was ended, why is Yumenes still there? But when I finally realized that you were keeping the narrator constant and varying the time, so these characters were never going to converge on each other like I’d been expecting, I was really happy that I’d actually been getting to spend time with Essun all along, and that her mysterious and awful backstory had (mostly) already been revealed.

    If she’d caught up with Jiji and you’d tried to persuade us to like *him*, it would’ve been a lot more difficult, so thank you for not doing that (so far). What’s a little mass murder, in context? If only destroying the world *helped*…

    It ended up being a really neat way to set up a book, but it kind of breaks my heart why you felt like you had to do it that way. (But then… I *do* feel more sympathy for Essun than for e.g. Kameron Hurley’s Nyx, who’s always in her adult/angry/broken state and who’s to say your narrative structure wasn’t part of that?) But everything about this book breaks my heart to varying degrees. (Except the thermodynamics.)

    Please write more.

  43. My middle-aged straight white guy (who has really enjoyed all your previous books) perspective:

    I twigged to Damaya being Syenite a couple chapters before the reveal, and from there, immediately thought “well, it would make the most sense if Essun was the older incarnation of the character,” and so was consciously watching for it from that point.

    I get and appreciate everything you’re saying in your post here about character expectations and cultural training and empathy gaps; all true. On the other hand, I found Essun immediately sympathetic, as a mother confronted simultaneously with a child’s death and intimate-partner violence. She’s clearly and understandably in a place of deep trauma.

    Also, we are expected to understand her unprivileged place as a (temporarily hidden) member of a despised class, and it is understandable, but doesn’t immediately hit us (where “us” is me-I’m speaking generally where I probably shouldn’t) where we live, because we haven’t grown up imbibing all the cultural signals and markers that create and limn that despised class, so we don’t *feel* the reflexive distaste for Essun that we otherwise might. (There’s your failure of empathy, on my part, at least!).

    Also also, consider that part of readers’ empathy for and identification with Essun, as reflected in the comments here, is because you’re a fantastic talent and a really really good writer. Much looking forward to the next book in the story!

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