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 torn into the heart of the earth, spewing ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.
There’s so much going on in this book. It is dense and filled with dangerous adventure. It’s also filled with bigotry, sexism and violence. In many ways, it’s a difficult book to get through. Three story lines, three different women. Or so we think. Each on their own adventure. Each with a different narrative point of view.
There’s Essun, whose son has been killed by her husband. Her story starts with the discovery of her son’s body and carries us through as she searches for her daughter who’s been kidnapped by Essun’s husband. Along the way she meets the mysterious Hoa and gregarious Tonkee who delights in taking samples of things as they go along in search of a community which will take them in after the ground has started shifting under their feet.
There’s Dayama, a young girl whose parents exile her to the barn until a Guardian can fetch her. Exiled because she has a scary skill and people would rather her kind, the orogene, didn’t exist at all. Dayama’s story begins when the Guardian arrives and takes her off to school, on horseback, to be trained. Daya is treated better by the Guardian, Schaffa, than she was by her community and family. Yet his treatment comes with difficult lessons to learn, one of which is that because she is orogene, she will always be considered less than the rest of society. She will always be considered lowest of the low, unless someone needs her to use her skills for them. Even then, she will be asked begrudgingly.
Third, there’s Syenite whose story begins when she is assigned to a ten-ring orogene named Alabaster on what seems to be a simple mission to unclog a shipping port so trade can go back to normal. Syen is resentful and angry, and she takes it out on Alabaster, who returns her anger in kind. The first scene with Syen is almost literally her telling him that she’s there to fuck him (Jemisin does not sugar coat this). Syen believes the only reason she is traveling with him is to breed. His ten-ring genes with her four-ring genes could produce a super orogene to be used at one of the satellite stations for the Fulcrum.
“Everything changes during a Season.” (p. 185)
The Fifth Season refers to an extended winter triggered by cataclysmic earthquakes or catastrophic weather events. And one is on its way.
Then there comes a humdinger of a loop. One which threw me completely out of the story and made me feel betrayed. I had to put the book down and walk away for a long while. Truly, I didn’t understand why it happened, and it threw everything I thought I knew about this story into disarray. I wasn’t sure I could go on. The book won a Hugo, what was I missing?
After I calmed down, I did some reading of other reactions to The Fifth Season. What I read made me curious enough to go back and finish the book. It was worth it.
In a way, all the characters congregating at Castrima, the community run by orogenes, which welcomes everyone seems too easy. But there’s nothing easy about this book, you have to work for the payoff. Three women are actually the same woman, their stories set in three different times of her life. The stories of hardship, impossible choices, and survival come to a head in Castrima. Alabaster has the last word, “… have you ever heard of something called a moon?”
Everyone important to this story has gathered in Castrima, and it has something to do with a moon. What a great setup for book #2 The Obelisk Gate.