Summary: This is the way the world ends. Again.
Three terrible things happen in a single day. Essun, a woman living an ordinary life in a small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Meanwhile, mighty Sanze — the world-spanning empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years — collapses as most of its citizens are murdered to serve a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heart of the vast continent known as the Stillness, a great red rift has been been torn into the heart of the earth, spewing ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.
Now Essun must pursue the wreckage of her family through a deadly, dying land. Without sunlight, clean water, or arable land, and with limited stockpiles of supplies, there will be war all across the Stillness: a battle royale of nations not for power or territory, but simply for the basic resources necessary to get through the long dark night. Essun does not care if the world falls apart around her. She’ll break it herself, if she must, to save her daughter.
Thoughts: Since reading the Inheritance trilogy, I’ve been a fan of Jemisin’s writing, and I lusted after this book for well over a year. So when it finally made its way into my hands, I had extremely high hopes for it. I spent that time happily sheltered from any spoiler more detailed than the release date, so I went into it blind, knowing only that it was written by an author whose work I love.
I can’t even begin to say how even my legendary expectations were blown out of the water.
The story starts with Essun, a woman whose husband has murdered their young son and kidnapped their daughter, because he found out that Essun and her children were orogenes, those hated and dangerous manipulators of the earth. Essun sets out on a quest to kill her husband and recover her daughter, but a powerful seismic event has just happened, starting an unprecedented Season and changing the fate of humanity. Told alongside Essun’s story are the stories of Syenite, a young orogene on a mission with the most powerful orogene alive, and Damaya, an orogene just starting her training at the Fulcrum. Over time we see how these stories converge, but it’s not in the way many readers might first expect.
What to say about the world of The Fifth Season? The planet, or at least the known inhabited land, is one large continent called the Stillness. Nobody has much inclination to seek potential land elsewhere, because seismic activity is common and devastating, and tsunamis are a very real and not uncommon danger for people living in coastal communities, let alone those at sea. Humanity has survived disaster after disaster, civilizations crumbling and new ones arising, and the Sanze empire has been in power for most of recorded history. It is, on its surface, a fascinating and unique fantasy world.
But scratch below the surface and you see that it’s more complicated than that. It isn’t said outright, but there are strong hints dropped that it’s not a secondary world so much as this world, and that the whole story is post-apocalyptic fantasy. (Highlight to read spoilers) Long ago, humanity managed to destroy the moon, and with it went all we know about its effects on seismic activity. Tidal patterns changed. Earthquakes and volcanoes became more common. The degree to which this happens may be a bit of artistic license, but it all fits so very well that it’s hard to question too much of the hypothetical science while reading The Fifth Season.
There are so many wonderful and subtle things I loved about this book. It’s worth pointing out that treatment of gender and sexuality were two of the things that resonated strongly with me. Transgender people are encountered, and nobody makes a big deal of it. Someone presents as a woman, and whether or not they have a penis, you treat them like a woman. End of story. Alabaster prefers to sleep with men, Innon is happy to sleep with men or women. Things that this society still treats as odd and worthy of stares are treated as just part of people, no more odd than being cisgender or heterosexual. You can almost here the, “Yeah, what of it?” being asked every time it crops up in text, because the subtlety is so blatant that it’s practically challenging the reader to make a big deal of something that shouldn’t be, if they dare.
Of all three stories being told, I think I found Syenite’s and Damaya’s sections the most interesting. It wasn’t that Essun’s chapters were boring or poorly written, but from the perspective of personal taste, I found them less appealing than the others. Syenite’s chapters had quite a bit of action to them, which helped, and I’ve always had a draw to stories of kids encountering unique school-like settings like Damaya did. Essun’s story of vengeance in a world being slowly destroyed was compelling, and it being told in from the second-person viewpoint made many of the emotional scenes hit powerfully hard, and maybe that was part of why I liked the other sections more, too. Some things aren’t exactly enjoyable to read, given their subject matter, even when the skill that crafted the scene is first-rate and deserves to be read and appreciated.
The Fifth Season is Jemisin at her finest, and is a stellar novel not to be missed by fantasy fans. It hits hard, an earthquake to the soul; it wrings you out and puts you back together again. Powerful prose, amazing world- and culture-building, high emotional investment, all put together by a master of the writer’s art. This is a legend in the making!
(Received for review from the publisher.)