First published in 2015
My rating: 4 out of 5
The Short Of It:
"The Fifth Season" is a fantasy page-turner set in a cruel world plagued by apocalyptic events -- death seasons -- every few hundred years. I enjoyed Jemisin's creative plot and fantastic worldbuilding and I can't wait to continue the series!
The Long Of It:
Millennia from now, our verdant, gentle, beautiful Earth is an extremely unwelcoming place wracked by constant tectonic plate movement, earthquakes, tsunamis and supervolcanoes, to say nothing of the day-to-day "shakes" and "blows." The inhabitants of this Earth are solely focused on surviving the next "season" or apocalyptic event, which happens every few hundred years here.
While most of the citizens of the ironically-named Stillness are fairly similar to us, some are decidedly different: orogenes, people who have the power to mentally manipulate and harness seismic and thermal energy. These "gods in chains" can both still earthquakes with their minds and unleash enough destruction to kill everyone on the continent.
Both necessary and feared in the extreme, orogenes are treated with utmost suspicion and even hatred. Often when small children exhibit signs of orogenic ability, they're killed by their villages. Sometimes their existence is reported to the proper authorities who send a Guardian -- a special handler -- to whisk the child away to the Fulcrum, a training compound where the young orogene will hone his or her skills and be put into lifelong service for the government -- as well as forever live under the watchful, often cruel eye of their Guardian. The most powerful people in this world have allowed themselves to become the most oppressed.
Our three main characters, whose tales are told in interspersed chapters, are all orogenes of different ages: young Damaya, discovered to be an orogene after she (accidentally) nearly kills a classmate in a playground scuffle; Syneite, an accomplished twenty-something woman paired up with a master orogene for mentoring and breeding; and Essun, a 42-year-old woman keeping her ability a secret and living a normal life in a comm, who arrives home one day to find that her husband has beaten their son to death, presumably after discovering he, too, was an orogene. The multiple points of view -- one of which, uniquely, is written in second person -- helps readers understand what life is like for an orogene from childhood to adulthood (not too good, at any stage), to experience life in different parts of The Stillness, and to get to know these three exceptionally powerful women who will have an important role to play in the reckoning that is clearly coming.
In this futuristic world where preparing to survive the next extinction-level event is paramount, most of humanity is judged by its usefulness. Residents of the walled communities that dot the Stillness are sorted into castes based on what they can contribute to the society in the event of a season. Those with the fewest useful skills are the first to be cast out into the wilds as commless when disaster is approaching. Geology is king and the sciences that we so value, like astronomy and biology, are considered a complete waste of time. Likewise, traditional religion is gone; Father Earth is the only deity this world can handle. Too, relics and ruins of past civilizations, some far more advanced than the one in the novel, are cast aside as worthless -- if it didn't save them, why would it save us? is the mentality. Except some of those ancient relics turn out to be a very important part of the unfolding battle that will surely change The Stillness beyond recognition.
The plot was unique -- I loved how Jemisin combined fantasy and science -- and the worldbuilding was excellent. I could vividly imagine life on this cruel planet Earth that so hates its human occupants, as well as the appearance of the characters and their communities, in some cases quite different from our own. The plot was also cleverly assembled -- the three protagonists' stories converge to reveal a surprising plot point that readers might not see coming.
My only real gripe about the book was that, though the writing was quite readable and the plot was satisfyingly complex, I sometimes felt like I could be reading a young adult novel; it was the tone in which some things were written, and the overabundance of italics, and odd sentences
that sort of
(And which I've only ever seen in YA books.) Overall, though, I really enjoyed this book, and the more distance I have from it the more excited I am to get back to this original and terrifying world that Jemisin has crafted.