The Fifth Season is a very bleak book. It is riveting, engrossing, engaging, compelling, thought-provoking, and more, but it is also very, very bleak. When I was finished, I picked up a slim Soviet-German comedy (not an oxymoron!) by way of lightening the mood.
The Fifth Season begins with a mother still tending the body of her dead son. Soon, readers learn that the murderer was the child’s own father, and that the father has taken their daughter with him as he fled town before his act was discovered. Soon, readers learn that the father killed his son because of what the child was: someone who could perform earth magic, automatically, unconsciously, drawing on the power of life around the practitioner to fuel the magic, sometimes expending that life in the process. Not long after, readers learn that much of the town does not regard the killing as a crime so much as the removal of a danger to the community. Later, seeing what the orogenes, the magicians, can do, readers may feel that the people of the town are not entirely wrong in their estimation.
The Fifth Season begins with a powerful orogene just outside the greatest city on the continent known, with geological irony, as the Stillness. Though the city stands atop a great fault, it has been stable for twenty-seven centuries, and people there build more extravagantly than anywhere else on the very active continent. “He takes all that, the strata and the magma and the people and the power, in his imaginary hands. Everything. He holds it. He is not alone. The earth is with him. Then he breaks it.” (p. 7) The magician not only destroys the city, he opens up a cut across the continent that will break it in two. The ash from this cataclysm will blot out the sun for years, spreading devastation across all of the lands. Eventually, things will return to normal. “Eventually meaning in this case in a few thousand years.” (p. 8)
The Fifth Season tells the stories of what happened after the first discovery, and what happened before that terrible catastrophe.
The Fifth Season takes place in a world that is geologically overactive, causing calamities on the time scale of human lives, or at least human civilizations, rather than on the scale of eons in Earth’s case. The people of the Stillness have adapted, as have the other, less-known intelligences that share this world with humans. Some humans also have the ability to connect with the world and to use that power to shape its workings according to their will. When they are very young, they do it unconsciously, but those who survive childhood can be trained to work wonders. They can still earthquakes, move mountains, and many things in between. Essun, the woman who discovers her dead child at the beginning of the book, is an orogene. Her chapters are told in the second person. Other chapters are told from the points of view of Damaya, who starts as an orogene who has just discovered her powers, by accident, and is cast out by her family, given to a child-taker. In short order, Damaya realizes that being sent away is all that saves her life from the neighbors who fear her. Still other chapters are told from the point of view of Syenite, a grown woman who has completed her training and puts her orogene powers in the service of the Stillness’ dominant polity, a not-quite empire centered on the city of Yumenes, the city readers know from the first pages as the center of the continent-rending cataclysm. All of the chapters are told in the present tense, giving the book great immediacy.
The Fifth Season has characters that are rounded and memorable, that act the way that people do in both normal situations and times of great stress. Even characters who are not in view for long feel real. The village headman, trying to make the best of a bad situation; the high functionary in a magical order, playing politics and a role at the same time; the pirate captain, alive beyond reason; the high-born girl, dangerously slumming; though none stands at the center of the narrative all have important effects, and all feel like they have their own realities that continue after they intersect with the point of view characters. For a book that opens with death on both the personal and the continental level, The Fifth Season is terribly full of life. Terribly.
The Fifth Season lays bare some of the ugliness that keeps the current civilization of the Stillness in place. People’s wild fear and hatred of the orogenes is just a part of that price. The ones who come to Yumenes for training at the Fulcrum, a school of magic and a scheme of containment all in one, hone their abilities and serve the greater good, but they also pay many different prices for both of those. Nor does the book shy away from showing what early brutality, constant demands of self-control, and great power do to people’s character. Nobility is in short supply.
The Fifth Season can, in part, be read as a reflection on African-American experiences. Even the derogatory term for orogene, roggen, echoes. As the novel progresses, the characters find that the social order they were taught from childhood — orogenes at the bottom — is not the only way that a society can be set up. They come across communities where orogenes are welcomed and treated as normal, still others where orogenes’ abilities lead the communities to put them in charge, and there is even one that may be entirely (or nearly) comprised of orogenes.
The Fifth Season is a powerful book; it is also full of power. It shows what people do with power, and what power does to them. Social power, magical power, the power of position, the power of money, the power of experience, the power of greater knowledge. All of these pass through the book, and nearly every character faces a test of how he or she will use the power available.
In The Fifth Season, an ending is often a beginning. It is the first book in the Broken Earth trilogy (don’t read the jacket text of the second book, The Obelisk Gate, there’s a great big spoiler), and though an age ends in its first pages, some stories are just beginning.