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Literature / The Fifth Season

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But this is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world ends.
For the last time.

The Fifth Season is a 2015 novel by N. K. Jemisin, and the first book of The Broken Earth Trilogy. In a world plagued by terrible earthquakes, the survival-obsessed populace scrapes by living in disaster-prepared city-states called comms and following the survival tips of the ancients known as stonelore. There once was an empire called the Sanzed Equatorial Affiliation in this land, whose presence is still felt through the culture, rules, and other things passed down by their former capital Yumenes and the rest of their former lands. The government of Yumenes helps maintain stability with the Fulcrum, an army of enslaved orogenes trained under the watchful eyes of the mysterious Guardians. These orogenes are born with staggering power, but are widely feared and hated, considered agents of the bitter, humanity-hating Father Earth.

For ten years, Essun has been living a peaceful life in a small town with her husband and two children—but all that changes when a massive earthquake cracks the continent down the center. Such disasters have happened before, but this one is the worst yet. After they unconsciously shield the town from the worst of the shake, Essun and her children are revealed as orogenes. Her husband beats her son to death and kidnaps their daughter, and Essun, with nothing else left to live for, chases him down in pursuit of revenge. But even that isn't simple. She is joined by a strange inhuman child and a mysterious homeless woman, and it soon becomes clear that the past she's been hiding from isn't as dead she'd hoped...

The Fifth Season contains examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Damaya's parents lock her in a barn in winter without a blanket, and were perfectly happy to hand her over to a man they thought would kill her. And Schaffa, once he becomes her Parental Substitute, breaks her hand to teach her a lesson. In a twisted moment, he tells her that he will kill her if he deems it necessary because he loves her.
    Schaffa: I will break every bone in your hand, every bone in your body, if I deem it necessary to make the world safe from you.
  • Accent Interest: The veteran Mage Killer Guardian Schaffa has a unique accent that several viewpoint characters remark on. An ancient Stone Eater eventually identifies it as a sign that he's tens of thousands of years old — telltale linguistic quirks last even though he's long since forgotten their source due to the Fog Of Ages.
  • After the End: Or perhaps "during the end," as the cataclysm that ends the world is the novel's prologue.
  • Amplifier Artifact: The obelisks amplify orogenes's power, allowing them to perform impressive feats.
  • Anachronic Order: The Damaya and Syenite sections clearly take place before the Essun sections, given that Yumenes still exists during them, while its destruction is the start of the Essun sections. Specifically, Damaya is a young Syenite, who takes the name of Essun after everything in her life goes to shit. Overlaps with Flashback B-Plot.
  • And I Must Scream: The node maintainers, who are orogenes that live in constant agony thanks to surgical meddling with their sessapinae.
  • Apocalypse How:
    • Class 2: Humanity has already survived multiple iterations of the planetary/societal collapse, to the point that society is built around it. Everyone thinks they'll get through this one, too, except...
    • Class 4: Unbeknownst to them, the artificial winter is going to last a whole lot longer and the world's not going to get back to normal for several thousand years.
  • Archaeological Arms Race: Defied - the Empire's official policy is that if the relics didn't save the long-dead civilizations they belonged to, they're of no use in the present day
  • Artifact of Doom: Some dead civ relics can be these. The quartz obelisk wakes the volcano that annihilates the comm of Allia. In fairness, it seems to be broken. It's policy in many areas that all deadciv relics should be treated like this, just in case, to the point where some societies level them.
  • Beware the Quiet Ones: Essun is an unobtrusive, unassuming woman whom most people in her village know as "Jija's wife". When they figure out she's an orogene and try to kill her, she snaps, kills her attackers and everyone else who was too close to her, and destroys half the town.
  • Blessed with Suck: In a world that is always seismically unstable, you'd think being able to control earthquakes would be great, but orogenes who don't know how to control their power can accidentally kill people by instinctively sucking the heat energy out of them to use as power, and they are widely hated and feared.
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: The official view on Stone Eaters by humans. That said, the three Stone Eaters that appear are all helpful to their human companions. Not to mention that the same culture that officially finds Stone Eaters impenetrable also considers oregene a curse and its wielders inhuman.
  • Broken Ace: Alabaster is a ten-ringer, making him the Fulcrum's very best operative. But, since he works for the Fulcrum, he's been horribly abused for years, and he is cynical and self-hating. Oh, and he's the one who caused the world-ending earthquake.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • The floating obelisks, which grant additional powers to rare orogenes who are attuned to them.
    • Early in the novel, Alabaster tells Syenite that turning an orogene's power against them will have unpleasant results, but doesn't elaborate further. Near the end, we see what this does to Innon, and it's not pretty.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Binof Leadership Yumenes turns up later as Tonkee
  • Crystal Prison: The obelisk under Allia was different than the others, damaged and spinning off-kilter, because somehow a Stone Eater had become trapped inside of it. And may have even still been alive.
  • Dangerous Forbidden Technique: Fulcrum wisdom says that orogenes can't cooperate; the more powerful torus cancels out the other. The obelisks get around this rule, though only Alabaster knows it. He uses them to combine his power with all the Node Maintainers' and destroy Yumenes, perhaps illustrating why the civilization that made this possible isn't around anymore.
  • Death of a Child: Essun's section of the book begins with her discovering her three-year-old son Uche beaten to death by his own father for being an orogene. Syenite's section ends with her murdering her son so the Guardians and the Fulcrum can't take him.
  • Disinherited Child: Tonkee was quietly shuffled off to a university and disinherited by her aristocratic family because she (a) showed far more interest in academia than in rule and (b) disrupted a politically sensitive Arranged Marriage plan by coming out as transgender. She's equally relieved to be out of the family.
  • Downer Beginning: Starts with the double whammy of The End of the World as We Know It and Essun's three-year-old son being killed by her husband.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: The Fulcrum's idea of training Grits - who are mainly children - involve shaving them bald if they repeatedly forget to brush their hair, mouth-soaping them if they forget to brush their teeth and beating them with a switch for incorrect uniform or not making the bed.
  • Faking the Dead: How Essun has stayed under the Guardians' radar. They think she died when she blew up Meov.
  • Foreshadowing: We encounter a legend about the loss of Father Earth's companion bringing down his wrath not too long before we learn Alabaster wants to provide a new one by making a moon.
  • Guy on Guy Is Hot: Syenite gets aroused watching Alabaster and Innon together in bed, despite usually not finding Alabaster particularly attractive on his own.
  • High-Class Cannibal: During the Seasons when the planet becomes a Death World, it's a grim fact that "you don't ask about the meat". Some of the Sanzed elite, however, developed a taste and continued the practice into peacetime.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: [1], it turns out Misalem was hit by this, with the stories making it seem like he wanted to kill the emperor and threaten Yumenes because he wanted power when he actually wanted revenge for how they had oppressed and cannibalized his people.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: At least one of Alabster's children—which he only had because the Fulcrum forced him too—are node maintainers. Alabaster uses them courtesy of the obelisks to destroy the entire culture that created and maimed them.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: As it turns out, the Sanzeds were this during a particularly bad Season.
  • I Will Find You: Essun is determined to find her daughter Nassun, who has been taken away by her father Jija, and travels the world looking for her.
  • Just Before the End: The prologue opens on Alabaster opening the rift and releasing the Season to end all Seasons upon the world. Damaya and Syenite's stories take place approximately 30 and 12 years before, respectively.
  • The Lost Lenore: Hessionite to Alabaster and Innon to both Alabaster and Syenite/Essun.
  • Mama Bear: Essun. She was this as Syenite, too.
  • Meaningful Rename: Damaya takes the name "Syenite" when she passes her first ring test and becomes an active Fulcrum operative. Syenite is a stone that becomes stronger under heat and pressure, rather than breaking.
  • Mentor in Sour Armor: Alabaster acts as Syenite's mentor, teaching her both about advanced orogeny and horrible truths about the fulcrum. He's very cynical due to realizing said horrible truths and often seems annoyed by Syenite, though he grows to genuinely care for her.
  • Muggle Born of Mages: Guardians are cultivated from the children of orogenes who are not themselves oregenes. It involves some surgery to the brain stem, and no one else can do it.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Syenite, after she accidentally wakes a volcano under the city of Allia.
  • Narrator All Along: Hoa is actually narrating the story.
  • Offing the Offspring: Essun's husband to her son, when he realized that the son was an orogene; Syenite to her son Corundum, in order to keep him from being captured and mutilated.
  • Oh, My Gods!: People swear by "Evil Earth".
  • The Paragon Always Rebels: Alabaster is the very best orogene the Fulcrum has ever trained. He also hates them, did something to his Guardian to get her out of the way (nobody knows what), gets the hell out the first chance he gets, and causes the end of the world because he thinks it's the only way to break Yumenes's power and destroy the Fulcrum for good.
  • Parental Substitute: Guardians often become this to orogenes, because they alone are not scared of them. As long as an orogene isn't about to kill someone, they're safer with the Guardians than they are anywhere else. Unfortunately, that still isn't very safe.
  • Powered by a Forsaken Child: The "node maintainers" are lobotomized orogenes.
  • Precision F-Strike: When Schaffa reminds Syenite that she is not allowed to say "no" to him, she responds with "fucking no!"
  • Really 700 Years Old: Hoa is at least twenty-seven thousand years old, but looks about eight. As in eight, eight, not "eight-thousand."
  • The Reveal: When Damaya tells Schaffa that she has chosen her ringer name, we realize that Damaya is Syenite as a child, with the extension that Essun is the same woman in her forties being an easy leap of logic.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: Jemisin acknowledges that Margaret Garner, who killed her own daughter rather that have her live as a slave, inspired the novel.
  • Sealed Evil in a Can: Played with. The Stillness is apocalypse-prone enough that it's littered with "dead civ" artifacts of uncertain purpose. Some of them are things like a fully functional apocalypse vault. Others include a device that wakes a long-dead volcano that has a town built on it (though in fairness, that one seemed to be broken).
  • Sexual Extortion: It's revealed in Damaya's time as a Grit that one of the instructors was blackmailing another Grit into sexual activity so he could send letters home.
  • Super Breeding Program: The Fulcrum sometimes orders their orogenes to have children with each other in order to produce new, powerful orogenes. This happens to Syenite and Alabaster.
  • Technically a Smile: When Stone Eaters bare their teeth, it's done as a threat display. Enhanced by the fact that the teeth are made of diamond.
  • Test of Pain: The Fulcrum tests orogene children by breaking their hands, ostensibly to see if they can control their powers since they can be triggered by the orogene's fight-or-flight response. Those who lash out are killed. It was a defining horror of Essun's childhood, and a Wham Line when she's revealed to have done the same to her daughter.
    Schaffa: Can you? Control yourself. It's an important question. The most important, really. Can you?
  • The Three Faces of Eve: The protagonists: Damaya, the child; Syenite, the seductress — in that it is her job to have sex with Alabaster to produce an orogene; and the quiet Essun, known merely as Jija's wife. They are all the same person at different stages of her life, playing into this trope's use as three faces of one thing — each is a different "face" of the same person, who moves between each over the course of her growth.
  • Tsundere: Syenite has shades of this as a consequence of being so guarded. A piece of narration from her time in Meov sums up this trope's mentality nicely:
    ...[the Meovites] think that Syenite enjoys being reminded that she is part of a group now, contributing and contributed to, and that she no longer needs to guard herself against everyone and everything. They're right. That doesn't mean she's going to tell them so.
  • Two Aliases, One Character: It gets revealed that the three characters the book follows the perspective of, Damaya, Syenite, and Essun, are the same person at different times. Similarly, Tonkee turns out to be Binof.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: The people of Tirimo to Essun. They survived a literal world-ending earthquake with their homes and food supplies mostly intact because of her... and they try to kill her anyway because she's a "rogga".
  • Unreliable Narrator: Sanzed social views have so deeply penetrated world culture that many concepts are initially skewed. The parable that Schaffa tells Damaya and Alabaster later deconstructs is a prime example.
  • The Un-Smile: Guardians have a tendency of smiling very creepily. This is because they are in constant pain and smiling helps to alleviate it.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Alabaster. Yes, causing the massive earthquake killed thousands if not millions of people and is going to kill even more. But it also destroyed the corrupt and horrifically abusive Fulcrum, which was the point.
  • Wham Line: For most of the book, it seems like the pattern of destructive Fifth Seasons is just part of the setting and not something that needs explanation, until we suddenly get that explanation in the last line of dialogue.
    Alabaster: Tell me, have you ever heard of something called a moon?
  • What If the Baby Is Like Me: Syenite and Alabaster worry their baby will be an orogene like them and be abused by he Fulcrum. Alabaster, however, reveals that if the baby is not an orogene they will end up being turned into a Guardian, which it is implied isn't a good fate either.
  • Where I Was Born and Razed: Essun attacks her hometown after she's nearly killed while trying to leave it, killing a few people before controlling herself but also dooming the town by destroying their underground water supply, which really isn't good during a Season.
  • Wizarding School: Horribly subverted. The Fulcrum may look like a school, but it's just a place to beat and brainwash young orogenes into becoming obedient slaves of non-orogenes. Anyone who causes too much trouble or fails too much is either killed or taken away and lobotomized.
    The Fulcrum is not a school. Grits are not students. Orogenes are not people.
  • World Sundering: Alabaster uses his orogeny powers in conjunction with the obelisks to create a massive rift in the earth that splits the world's only continent in two permanently, killing everyone in the city where the rift appeared and many in the areas relatively close-by immediately, as well as ensuring the ensuing volcanic winter-type event will starve everyone in the world within a few decades.
  • Would Hurt a Child: The Guardians, to a one.
  • You Killed My Father: Essun is chasing down her husband, Jija, because he killed her son and kidnapped her daughter.