Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
I did not enjoy The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, but N.K. Jemisin’s brilliant short story collection gave me hope that The Fifth Season might be her novel for me. Indeed it was! I can conclude that it wasn’t Jemisin’s style that bothered me about the previous series, just the world and the premise and the plot, etc.—it just wasn’t a story I was into. In contrast, The Fifth Season tells a very focused story about a few characters in the middle of an apocalypse in a world that might very well be our own, far into the future, although I’m going to avoid saying too much for risk of spoilers.
Definitely spoilers, later on in this review, so seriously, stop reading now if you don’t want an essential plot point ruined.
The book spreads itself over multiple timelines. It tells the stories of Essun, Damaya, and Syenite, all women who are also orogenes—people with the ability to manipulate the kinetic and thermal energy in earth and living things in order to reshape rock. Orogenes are ostracized and forcibly recruited, when possible, as children into the Fulcrum—kind of like mages in Dragon Age, if you will, being taken into the Chantry. Essun is an orogene living under the radar until the continent-shaking quake that signals the beginning of this eponymous fifth season. Damaya and Syenite are orogenes at different points of their training with the Fulcrum (it’s implied that their stories are taking place prior to the onset of the fifth season, although the complete timeline isn’t clarified until near the end of the book). All three women must navigate their dangerous lives as they learn more about how their gender and their abilities define them, and constrain them. All three women must make choices about what they value, and whether or not they can use their powers to protect whom they value.
Jemisin’s tectonically quixotic world is automatically a fascinating setting. Paired with the orogenes, Stone Eaters, and Guardians (our trio of “magic”-like beings in this world), and you have a really cool fantasy setting. Seriously, this is unlike anything that fell off the European knock-off fantasy tree, and that’s cool. As I alluded to above, it’s more like a very original fantasy created for a video game. As I discovered in her short story collection, Jemisin’s creativity is so fecund and diverse that this world is bursting at the seams with so many fascinating ideas. All I can do is soak up as many as possible while I read.
Although the women’s powers are obviously key to the plot, it’s important to understand that The Fifth Season is more about power than powers. As with many a good speculative fiction story, Jemisin makes it her mission to explore how different social structures influence the social constructs we inhabit. Essun is an orogene, but she’s also a woman and a mother. Her story begins with the death of her son at the hands of her husband, launching her on a kind of revenge-fuelled quest to leave behind a community that has forsaken her and hopefully rescue her daughter. Syenite, likewise, begins her story essentially being directed to breed with another powerful orogene in the hopes of producing a powerful orogene offspring.
It’s notable that large-scale power structures are all but invisible in this book. The characters are technically members of an empire, yet the emperor, we’re meant to infer, has precious little real political power. Instead there is a Leadership caste who seem to make the decisions, although their influence over he far-flung “comms” of the Stillness seems perfunctory at best. The Fulcrum has many powerful orogenes, yet it is also somewhat shunned—it is respected but not necessarily welcomed or appreciated. Both Damaya and Syenite ask: who is in charge of the Fulcrum? Is it the Guardians? What’s their deal anyway?
I love how Jemisin answers enough questions to keep us going yet resists the urge to infodump and answer every question all the time. There are just enough interruptions to keep us guessing, too. This is a fine line to walk in this kind of story—don’t hide so much I lose track of what’s happening, because then I’m going to bail. But don’t tell me so much I get bored. There’s two pretty cool twists towards the end of the book. The first one I didn’t actually figure out; the second one I did see coming.
First: Essun, Damaya, Syenite are the same person. Totally missed that, although the clues are kind of there and it’s obvious in hindsight. This is a great storytelling technique that Jemisin exploits fully, and it’s executed with aplomb.
Second: the tectonic instability of this world (which may or may not be a future Earth, but that’s kind of irrelevant for now) is because the moon is no longer a thing. Which I kind of guessed before they mentioned it, because no character had mentioned the moon at any point in the book, and lack of a moon is one way a planet like this would have issues with its plate tectonics. I love when a fantasy novel proves to be backdoor science fiction in some ways!
The Fifth Season is about survival, and power, and doing what it takes to survive even when it means not exercising your power to save people you’d rather save. It has a focused, careful plot that keeps the reader going, yet it’s obviously set in a much larger, captivating world. I adored every moment I spent reading this, and I’m really looking forward to diving into the sequel sometime. (I want to say soon, but let’s be real. Best of intentions and all that. It could be next week, it could be two years from now. I make no promises!)