4 out of 5 stars
Oh the puns want to write themselves in this review. Rock solid sci-fi? Down to Earth? I’m a hack even in failing to adequately sum up my praise for this series.
In The Fifth Season, we meet three women. Damaya, a young girl ostracized by her family for demonstrating a special, terrible power. Syenite, a young woman with the same power who is being trained/controlled to exploit it. And Essun, a grown woman hiding this power from the world – and hiding that her two young children have it, too.
The power is orogeny, an ability to control – and cause – seismic activity in the Earth. Orgenes have heightened sessapinae, an additional sense that allows the reading of vibration, the “sensing” of things. Their word is called The Stillness, though it’s anything but. Quakes of all magnitudes occur regularly, triggering chasms, volcanoes, tsunamis, and, ultimately, the dreaded seasons. Beyond four regular seasons, these fifth seasons are brought about by natural disaster and disrupt – or outright destroy – life from all humanity.
Too powerful, Orogenes are loathed and murdered for their abilities: They can stop seismic activity and save people. But they can also create it, intentionally or not. A government-run organization called The Fulcrum collects and trains young orogenes, selling their necessary talents but brutally ruling them with Guardians, who have special, orogene-cancelling powers of their own. Then there are Stone Eaters: intelligent, non-human, possibly indestructible beings hanging around for… well, keep reading.
Book 1, The Fifth Season, is a dense and transporting sci-fi masterpiece. Like Dune (but less work!), it drops the reader into a fully realized world and expects you to catch on fast. It’s not futuristic really. It’s post-apocalyptic civilization trying to reboot among the dead husks of those who failed before them. The science isn’t computers and technology, but geology and Earth science. The orogen’s powers aren’t magic, they’re more like advanced evolution with a deep connection to the physical world. The action and worldbuilding unfold as our protagonists’ stories do, and their experiences entangle. Everything from breaking-and-entering to murder, from school pranks to world-altering decisions happens here. Wide-eyed Damaya, fiesty Syenite, and calculating Essun all make worthy heroines. Everyone comes of age as they realize the world is very different, and usually worse, than they knew. There’s a magnificently satisfying, twisty payoff to a particular plotline to booth. If you were paying attention, you just might have caught a hint. (I think the audiobook really added to this.)
Book 2, The Obelisk Gate, gets exponentially more high concept. The power of orogeny is related to much more than just vibrations. Obelisks – giant crystal shards that hang scattered about the sky around the known world – are also sensitive to orogeny. But do they cause it? Command it? Answer its call? And what are they? More space-y because of these questions, Book 2 shows the reader a broader world, and finds some happiness in it that’s worth fighting for. It’s also the most fun of the books. Damaya grows up to be a bold, curious spitfire. Syenite gets both meaner and nicer, her strength multiples as she finds some peace. Essun’s adventure is my favorite: she earns her place in a tough, fascinating community that speaks of a hope for humanity, should the world live to see it.
Then Book 3, The Stone Sky, takes the high-concept lead of Book 2 and jumps off a cliff. It goes back some 40,000 years to the origin of this world build, and makes the lead up to the eventual apocalypse a first person experience. What are the obelisks, and why? And how did Stone Eaters come to be? Why does Father Earth hate the life that lives upon his surface? I cared about this, but not at the great length and painstaking detail used here. This historical aside takes up most of Book 3, and steers away from the action for far too long. When finally we’re returned to our story, the great grand finale we’ve expected awaits. The end of this series is worthy of it’s fantastic start, it just take the last book too long to get there.