Review: The Fifth Season

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Review: The Fifth Season

On the ironically-named world of Stillness, where earthquakes and volcanoes are treated like particularly bad weather, something happens to break the planet open much, much worse than it’s ever been broken before.

A mother leaves her village, her own world having ended just slightly before the rest of the world did.

A little girl discovers a new talent and is exiled from her family for it. She’s soon taken away to begin training in her new life as an orogene.

And in the glittering city of Yumenes, a talented young woman is rising through the ranks of orogenes, clawing her way towards, if not freedom, then at least a little privacy and the right to say “no” every once in a while. She’s sent on an assignment with one of the most powerful orogenes in existence, and gradually finds out how much that power is worth.

N.K. Jemisin’s 2015 novel The Fifth Season is the first book in what I hope is a very long series. It’s science fiction (with some horror) in a fantasy setting. It’s an epic adventure with a tiny bit of romance, lots of tragedy, and the story starts with the end of the world. This is the kind of book you fall into and then stumble out of days later, wondering what the hell just happened and when can you have some more.

Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall: Death is the fifth, and master of all.

-Arctic proverb

I picked up this book because I enjoyed the heck out of Jemisin’s short story “The City Born Great”, and I’m glad I did because The Fifth Season is the kind of epic world-building I love. It’s told in a style that I love too: dropping the reader into a story already in progress and then letting us figure out how everything works as we go along. There’s a brief explanation in the beginning, and a sizable glossary at the end, but for the most part the author gradually unfolds the world around us, feeding us details and words like sessapinae, orogene, family (sort of) names, calendar terms, profanity, social structure, and every other part of a civilization shaped by a very inhospitable planet.

The Fifth SeasonThe people of the world of Stillness are surprisingly long-sighted, for all that their civilization keeps getting torn down by mostly natural forces. History is measured in planet-wide disasters (some of which can be centuries apart), villages are referred to as “newcomms” until they’ve managed to survive at least one mega-disaster, and people are completely dismissive of any technology that’s been left behind by vanished civilizations, or “deadcivs”. For instance, in this world there are giant obelisks that float in the sky. Entirely made of stone, as big as mountains, drifting along like clouds, and most people don’t even notice them anymore because if the civilization that created them had anything useful to offer then it would still be here. 

If there’s one reason why the human race can still survive on a world like this, it’s because of the orogenes (or the derogatory word “roggas”): people who are born with the ability to harness energy with their minds. They can pull all the heat out of the air and the ground (freezing solid anything nearby) and then use that power to crack stones and knock down walls. They can push aside coral reefs and lift buried rocks. They can stop earthquakes. 

You might think everyone would love them for this. You wouldn’t be more wrong.

Any new orogene who’s discovered outside the capital city of Yumenes runs the risk of being killed by lynch mob. (I’m a little surprised that this doesn’t go really badly for the mob more often, since these are untrained roggas who can dig up a volcano and throw it at you by accident.) Little Damaya is basically thrown away by her terrified family, who luckily decided to contact the Fulcrum Order so one of the Guardians could take Damaya away to be trained. I should probably put that in quotes: “Luckily”. Damaya’s training wasn’t quite as brutal as I was expecting, but brutal enough. The Guardians closely monitor the orogenes for their entire lives, and “grits” (unpolished stones) who don’t learn to control themselves at a young age are efficiently killed, that is if they’re “lucky”. No matter how much good they might do, orogenes are taught at every opportunity that their power is a curse, not a blessing.

(Friends do not exist. The Fulcrum is not a school. Grits are not children. Orogenes are not people. Weapons have no need of friends.)

The novel is told in three parts, and a third of it is devoted to Essun, an orgene who’s been living outside the Fulcrum in secret for years. By the time the novel starts she’s lost just about everything. Her story is the bleakest, but oddly enough it’s also the least stressful. She has maybe one small shred of hope to recover any part of her life, but for the most part she proves that the most dangerous creature on the entire planet is a rogue rogga who has exactly zero fucks left to give.

I think the chapters I enjoyed most were the ones featuring the rising star orogene, Syenite. She’s got a delightful amount of sass. She’s learned enough from life in the Fulcrum to know her place, but not enough to be broken by it. Yet. Orogenes are trained to never show emotion, especially when they’re on assignment (would you want the person hired to soothe a dangerous fault line be someone with a bad temper?) but there are times when Syen has just had enough of flunkeys who think they’re better than the person who’s trying to save their town.

“And that’s a really shitty apology. ‘I’m sorry you’re so abnormal that I can’t treat you like a human being.'”

Probably the most entertaining sparks from Syenite’s temper are caused by her new mentor, Alabaster. Syen dislikes him intensely from the start (and to be fair, she has some pretty good reasons to), but Alabaster isn’t anything that she expected from a high-level orogene. Fulcrum has taught him his place, and unlike Syen he has been broken by it. Again. And again. And again. Worse, he has no problem with showing Syenite everything about the life of orogenes, about the way Guardians treat them, about the way society uses them, that she’s been trying not to see her entire life.

This is why she hates Alabaster: not because he is more powerful, not even because he is crazy, but because he refuses to allow her any of the polite fictions and unspoken truths that have kept her comfortable, and safe, for years.

The three storylines are braided together along with appearances by frightening statues that are alive, geodes big enough to hold a person (or a city), beautifully cinematic battles fought with ground that suddenly grows spears of rock, and pirates living in pirate cities. Throughout all of this is the overwhelming theme of holding an entire race as slaves, breeding them for strength, breaking them with some truly unsettling kinds of abuse, and making sure they’re told one thing over and over: this is for your own good. Imagine an entire civilization that’s come up with a whole set of laws to justify atrocities. It’s a cycle that feeds on itself endlessly: treat someone badly out of desperation or fear, soothe your conscience by convincing yourself they deserve to be treated this way, which lets you justify treating them even worse, and so on, and so on.

As epic as this novel is and as brutal as it can be (and my God does it get brutal) it’s also an extremely fast read. I reached the end of the story like running into a wall, shocked that there wasn’t more left in the book. Fortunately the second in the series is already out (it’s up for a Hugo award, and it has a damn good chance of winning since The Fifth Season won the Hugo in 2016), and book number three comes out this August. Nice to know I have some of my reading already planned out this year.