Imagine a world with only one known continent, a Pangaea like land called the Stillness. The Stillness is held together, not by earth or water, but people. The Orogenes. Unique and feared, bred or born to the ordinary, with the ability to control the earth via kinetic energy. The Orogene are unwanted but needed to sustain their world and make money for the Fulcrum, home (prison?) of the Orogene. Ordinary people fear them, kill them, as their power is lethal trained or not. They have the ability to destroy a whole world.
The Fifth Season follows Essun, Syenite, and Damaya, each at different stages of an Orogenes existence. We meet obelisks, racists, guardians and stone eaters. Learning that Essun, Syenite and Damaya are all the same person.
“THIS IS THE WAY THE WORLD ENDS. AGAIN.
Three terrible things happen in a single day.
Essun, masquerading as an ordinary schoolteacher in a quiet small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Mighty Sanze, the empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years, collapses as its greatest city is destroyed by a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heartland of the world’s sole continent, a great red rift has been been torn which spews ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.
But this is the Stillness, a land long familiar with struggle, and where orogenes — those who wield the power of the earth as a weapon — are feared far more than the long cold night. Essun has remembered herself, and she will have her daughter back.
She does not care if the world falls apart around her. Essun will break it herself, if she must, to save her daughter.” Goodreads
Jemisin indulges in two narrative styles, 2nd and 3rd. Initially, I found this difficult to follow, Essun’s 2nd perspective pulled me from the story for a while as I switched between characters. This made for a slow start, but I soon began to appreciate the engineering of it as the story progressed. Jemisin takes what could have been an ordinary story and fleshed out layers and perspectives with this format. With Essun you feel there is a reliability to her narration, she is marred by grief, and that grief pulls her from herself where she is no longer ‘I’ but this other changed person she must refer to as ‘you’. Whereas Syenite and Damaya, as past versions of Essun are told with distance in the 3rd person, giving them a sense of memories and the distance of time, and gently pushing the reader towards this reveal.
Jemisin has built an intricate world, everything is named in relation to the experience of living with volatile tectonic plate activity that can result in a ‘Fifth Season’ of vast climate change. For example, “An orogeny is an event that leads to a large structural deformation of the Earth’s lithosphere (crust and uppermost mantle) due to the interaction between tectonic plates” and “Syenite is a coarse-grained intrusive igneous rock with a general composition similar to that of granite.” Wiki & Wiki. Much like J.K. Rowling built her world around myths and legends, Jemisin has built hers around geology and seismology. A well-developed world, intricate characters and a plot that keeps you interested are individually difficult qualities to master in one novel, let alone all at once.
From style to plot, themes of Race and racism stand out in this novel. I have not read a variety of science fiction, and I’ve not read nearly enough fiction as I would like, but compared to the contemporary books I have read this is one of the best portrayals of people of all skin colours, ranging from light to dark (‘caucasian’ is not the dominant race in The Fifth Season, and nor should it be). The Orogenes are slaves, controlled because people fear them (a commentary on slavery, perhaps?) and kept in line by their guardians. Damaya’s guardian is a menacing, lank-haired white man, who uses pain and love to psychologically damaged Damaya. She knows she is alone, and while he does not love her, he is the closest thing she has to love, standard abusive relationship. Where Orogene’s always hated or did people come to fear them and were stories twisted to suit a controlled narrative? We see this in modern day politics, with valid news being passed off as ‘fake news’ by people in power. This is what I hope to discover in the next books, what history has been expunged in the Orogene world.
The Fifth Season also opens up a discussion on gender and sexuality, with Jemisin going beyond standard cultural norms (published in 2016 this came before the #MeToo movement). Syemite is strong and adventurous, lacking maternal instinct. Alabaster, her 10 ring mentor, is more maternal and open with his emotions. She is still expected to breed and even though he wears his heart on his sleeve he is still powerful, the strongest of all the Orogenes. Alabaster and Syentite have a child, but neither love each other romantically, yet they are bonded. Instead, they love Innon and he loves both of them. This relationship at no point damages them or makes their relationship any less real and caring. Interestingly, what might have been a tacky plot point in older sci-fi novels, has a new perspective on our modern world with the emergence (and growing acceptance) of Polyamorous relationships. This isn’t a sexy plot point where a woman and a man fight over one man, this is a consensual and mutually beneficial grouping.
There was only one element of the novel that confused me, the role of the Obelisk and stone eaters. Filling out the historical gaps took a back seat to plot and character development, and while I would love a 600+ word novel with everything I could possibly learn it doesn’t always make for the most readable of novels. With two more novels in the series to go hopefully, they will hold the answers to my questions.
I’ve heard it said that the best sci-fi and fantasy novels are ones that reflect our society, without you evening noticing. The Fifth Season does this, in a way that seems effortless. Well deserving of it’s 2016 Hugo Award win, I can’t wait to read the next book (and 2017 Hugo Award winner), The Obelisk Gate.