“This is what you must remember: the ending of one story is just the beginning of another. This has happened before, after all. People die. Old orders pass. New societies are born. When we say “the world has ended,” it’s usually a lie, because the planet is fine.
But this is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world ends.
For the last time.”
I’m starting off this review with this quote because it’s the best description ofThe Fifth Season there is.
(Sidenote: I keep accidentally typing out The Fifth Element. I wonder if I’m not the only one doing this.)
I’ll give a bit more detail.
The Stillness is a world of constantly-shifting tectonic plates, unstable hotspots, and volcanos that could blow without warning. Living in a world so capricious and unstable, where catastrophic apocalypses are par for the course (these times are known as a Season, when ash covers the sky, blots out the sun, food and water grows scarce and eventually nonexistent, etc.), the people of the Stillness trust only what is strong, sturdy, and durable. Stonelore provides all the continent’s history, survival skills, and value system. Living on the continent are individuals who possess powerful magic called orogeny. Able to manipulate the earth at will, equally capable of both triggering an earthquake and protecting an entire town from one, orogenes are feared and reviled, classified as subhuman and are labeled with the slur rogga, and rounded up (if they’re not killed upon discovery by their own townspeople) and taken to the capital city where they are trained to use their powers and used as Imperial tools, bred to order and slaves in all but name. At its core, this book explores for what purpose and by what means a people choose to dehumanize a subsection of their population and what it means for those targeted to absorb those beliefs and exist within a set of systems and institutions they are told exist for everyone’s protection (including their own).
Essun, a forty-something woman, comes home from work one day to find that her husband has beaten her three-year-old son to death and vanished, taking her nine-year-old daughter with him. Her world has ended multiple times before. This is the latest occurrence. Far away, a young girl named Damaya is cast off by her family and taken to the Fulcrum, where she will be trained to control her orogeny and learn her place in a system that has revoked her right to be human. And farther away still, an orogene named Syemite is seething at being forced to copulate with an older, extremely powerful orogene, over and over again until she has a baby, a duty all orogenes are required to fulfill at the behest those in power, who are trying to control orogeny by through a mandated breeding program. Syenite’s journey will take her and her companion named Alabaster almost entirely off the map, where she will learn truths that reveal just how little the people of the Stillness understand orogeny and the land upon which they live.
There is so much to love about this book, especially the world-building and characters. I love that by virtue of the unpredictable nature of the earth itself and the Orogenes’ magic, the stakes are immediately high from the get-go. When your entire world is constantly at risk of being leveled and your civilization wiped out to be forgotten along with the earlier ones, people are going to make long-term survival the name of the game. I especially loved how history and historical narrative are treated in the text. The world is littered with the artifacts of long-ago civilizations, items that serve no purpose except as reminders that the old civilizations didn’t survive, which means their remains serve no purpose either, and there is nothing to learn from them. People rely on what’s known as stonelore, which contains the history of the Sanze Empire, records of all the Seasons that occurred, and rules that aid communities in preparing for and surviving the next one. But just because a civilization is gone doesn’t mean there isn’t value in what they produced, nor is history a hundred percent trustworthy just because it was supposedly carved in stone. In the case of the orogenes, historical record has been manipulated over and over to demonize their existence, and much of Essun, Damaya, and Syenite’s journeys are discovering just how much has been hidden under the surface of stonelore and cultural beliefs regarding orogeny and the history of the Stillness.
The Stillness is also a world largely populated by multiracial people of color, mixed due to the influence of the Sanze Empire. Race plays a role in The Fifth Season as a marker of origin, civilization (to what extent the Sanze Empire reached and influenced various areas), and survival, as the Sanze deliberately cultivated and bred for physical traits that would help people survive a Season (e.g. ashblow hair). (Additionally, there are gay, bisexual, and trans characters (one of each), as well as a poly triad/family that made me smile.)
I also loved the magic in this book. My knowledge of geology, plate tectonics, and related subject matter is zero, yet I could still envision all the orogeny the characters performed throughout the book, and both the magic and its aftermath were heart-pounding and visceral to read. The only other fictional character I can think of who has earth magic roughly equivalent to what the Orogenes possess is Trisana Chandler from Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic and Circle Opens quartets. Tris is a weather witch who is similarly feared by those around her for the vast amount of power she has over the elements, but she, unlike the orogenes, retains her autonomy and is respected as a mage in her own right.
I really enjoyed reading all three characters (though I will admit partiality and say Syenite was my favorite). Essun’s chapters were written in second-person present tense, and it was extremely effective in making the reader feel the immediacy and constant presence of her trauma following the discovery of her son beaten to death by her husband while still allowing forward movement within her narrative. I was also fond of Syenite’s withering sarcasm and snarkiness (snarkasm?), as well as her anger at the system that’s enslaved and dehumanized her to the point that, when she’s forced to choose between freedom and slavery for herself and those she loves, she breaks the world. Not the entire world, but her world. (This has been my year for reading books about marginalized women filled with rage who destroy the universe, and The Fifth Season fits right in.) At the
As for Damaya, I enjoyed the insights into the Fulcrum, the institute in which orogones are trained and kept, but she had a lot fewer chapters than the other two, and, greedy that I am, I wanted more.
My other favorite thing about this book? The stone eaters. A sentient race of beings made of stone about whom little is known except that they are made of stone and are terrifying. I am stoked to learn more about the stone eaters as they play a greater part in the story (which I’m certain they will), and I am especially stoked to see what direction the trilogy takes (or duology? I’m not sure) after that absolute bugger of a cliffhanger ending sentence. (Seriously. It’s not fair.)
For negatives, I will say the prologue felt somewhat disconnected from the rest of the story due to being written in an entirely different narrative voice and mostly containing set-up exposition. It took me a few chapters to fully immerse myself in the universe and grok the whys and wherefores behind the world-building. But once I did, I was hooked.
The Fifth Season is a fantastic first book of a new series, and an excellent example of epic fantasy, particularly epic fantasy that eschews the generic, white, medieval Europe template the majority of such books are modeled off of. N.K. Jemisin is a master at writing epic fantasy that’s cataclysmic and universe-encompassing in scope (I’d almost say it’s her specialty), and it is always a joy to read her writing, at turns humorous, snarky (I am always impressed how she infuses snarkiness into her writing without it being distracting), heartfelt and emotional.
I cannot wait to read the next book.