OK, I’m going to have to shell out for my WorldCon membership just so I can nominate this book for a Hugo.
I recently noticed that Nora Jemisin’s Goodreads profile lists her “influences” as Tanith Lee & Ursula K. Le Guin. I’m not sure if she put that in there or someone else did – but those just happen to be two of my most favorite authors; and yes, I can see the ‘influence’ on this book.
Previously, I’ve only read Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms – her first book. It was good enough that I bought the sequels – but I haven’t gotten around to reading them yet. ‘The Fifth Season’ really demonstrates that her writing has matured since then.
The premise itself involves a familiar fantasy scenario (although, technically, this is really “science-fantasy”): innate ‘magical’ abilities that are hated and feared by the local population; an institution devoted to collecting and training talented individuals. There’s some Wisdom of the Ancients, some post-apocalypse, some questing, some Wizard Battles. This book will appeal to anyone who loves all of these things. However, the writing and the non-stop originality of the book lift it head-and-shoulders above many other iterations of these tropes.
There are three threads of the story. It’s nearly immediately clear that they do not all take place concurrently, but it’s only gradually revealed how the events of each reflect upon and are related to the others. The unfolding of the tale is done masterfully.
In the first strand of this braid, Essun, a mature woman, is introduced by the side of her young son’s corpse. It turns out that the boy was revealed to be an orogene. (orogeny [aw-roj-uh-nee, oh-roj-] 1. the process of mountain making or upheaval.) Geologic upheaval is what people born with this ability can do, using only their minds. Unfortunately, it can be a hard ability to control – those with the ability tend to use it unconsciously, whenever they feel threatened or angry. Even a minor offense or accident can end up causing massive death and destruction. So it’s understandable that people with this ability are hated and feared. It’s also obvious, from nearly page 1, that in a world that is as geologically unstable as this one is, one prone to periodic apocalyptic eruptions that cause years-long, civilization-destroying winters (the ‘fifth seasons’ of the title), that the orogenes could be the key to survival itself.
Essun knows that it was her husband, the boy’s father, who killed him. She also knows that the boy’s abilities came from her – she also is an orogene. Traumatized and furious, she sets off on a quest for revenge – and to also possibly find her surviving child.
But there is one other thing that Essun knows. A recent geologic upheaval was worse than any other in recorded history. It might not yet be clear to everyone, but this could very well be the true end of the world.
In the second strand of the braid, we meet the young girl Damaya. She also has just been revealed as an orogene, due to the results of a playground spat. While her family didn’t kill her, they immediately repudiate and imprison her – and sell her to a Guardian, who plans to take her to what sounds a lot like a college for wizards, where orogenes will be trained to protect and serve, rather than to destroy.
In the third piece of the story, we meet the initiate Syenite, an orogene sworn to the service that we just saw Damaya entering. The obedience required of Syenite, and the responsibilities demanded from her, throw our perspective on the whole institution she serves into quite a different light.
And of course… this is just the beginning. There are also aliens! Pirates! Geode cities! Floating obelisks! More!
My one slight criticism of the book (and this is me as a non-parent) is there there is quite a lot of dead-child-as-motivation. I’m just generally not a fan of child-motivations in general. But this is done well enough for me to excuse it. The depictions of trauma are realistic and believable; the characters all really came to life for me.
There’s also a definite sequel on the way… and all I can say is: I can’t wait!