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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. 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...

Continued in The Obelisk Gate.


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.
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  • A Form You Are Comfortable With: Stone eaters take humanoid form in order to make interacting with their chosen orogenes easier. There are varying levels of good at it.
  • After the End: Or perhaps "during the end," as the cataclysm that ends the world is the novel's prologue.
  • 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.
  • Anti-Magic: Guardians become Guardians because they're capable of doing this. An orogene can't even sense their footsteps.
  • 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.
  • Bullying a Dragon: How the people of the Stillness generally treat orogenes, even though they can control earthquakes and suck the heat and energy out of whatever is around them. The people of Tirimo, in fact, turn on Essun as soon as they realize what she is; it goes about as well of them as you'd expect. Alabaster actually lampshades this when the deputy governor of Allia fails to show him and Syenite any basic hospitality or politeness.
    Alabaster: "We are merely here to wield powers greater than she can comprehend in order to save her region's economy, while she's— She is a pedantic minor bureaucrat. But I'm sure she's a very important pedantic minor bureaucrat."
  • Bury Your Gays: Innon is the only person we see killed onscreen by the Guardians' most feared ability — destroying an oregene with their own power, from the inside out. Alabaster isn't dead at the novel's conclusion, but would likely be better off that way. Alabaster's mentor was killed by the Guardians in a flashback, as well.
    • Less strictly, being transgender is one of the reasons that Tonkee's family disowned her.
  • 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
  • Creator In-Joke: Once again, the snobby imperialists have a history of cannibalism.
  • 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 three-year-old son Uche was beaten to death by his own father
  • Dishing Out Dirt: Orogenes, of course.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Eat Dirt, Cheap: The Stone Eaters, as you might guess.
  • Faking the Dead: How Essun has stayed under the Guardians' radar. They think she died when she blew up Meov.
  • The Famine: Society is built around surviving years-long famines. Every household and community maintains caches of non-perishable food, and they're familiar with the Cold Equations of rationing resources when a "Season" comes. ("You don't think about the meat.")
  • Fantastic Racism: Orogenes are widely viewed as subhuman monsters who'll go nuts and kill everyone around them at the drop of a hat. In fact, they were legally ruled not human a few thousand years before the start of the book. The hatred of orogenes is so strong that Essun's husband beats his three-year-old son to death when he finds out he is one.
    • More mundanely, Sanzeds look down on other ethnicities, because Sanzed racial traits (hair that filters ash easily, wide hips, etc) are considered better for surviving apocalypses.
    • Humans distrust Stone Eaters, claiming that their motives are unknowable. However, established human culture is very wrong about orogenes, and the few Stone Eaters we see are generally empathetic.
  • Fantastic Slurs: "Rogga" for orogenes. Ykka aims to make it an Appropriated Appellation in her orogene-friendly community and adopts it as a use-caste name, effectively treating the term as if it were a profession rather than an insult. Orogenes on the other hand call non-Orogenes "stillheads" (usually shortened to "stills", which according to the Fulcrum at least is offensive.
  • Fantasy Gun Control: Yumenes has asphalt and electric lights, but the cannon is a brand new technology. The handheld weapon of choice seems to be the crossbow. Borders on Schizo Tech, considering that gunpowder predated hydroelectric power in the real world by more than 500 years. This is justified in the sequels due to metallic iron & steel being a conduct for Father Earth to spy on, mind-control, and kill people.
  • 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.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: At least one—perhape all—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.
  • Incompatible Orientation: In a bit of dark irony, Alabaster, whom the Fulcrum continually assigns Syenite and other female orogenes to mate with in hopes of passing on his powers, turns out to be Straight Gay. They do their duty anyway, but not happily.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • The Night That Never Ends: The continent-shattering earthquake at the beginning of the book opens a volcanic rift continually pouring out enough ash to blot out the sun for thousands of years, kicking off an Endless Winter.
  • 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".
  • Our Humans Are Different: Humans have "sessapinae" in their brains that let them sense vibrations and seismic phenomena, a survival trait in the Death World they inhabit. Those born with the Functional Magic of orogeny can "sess" the exact composition of the earth for miles around, drain energy from their surroundings, and control seismic activity in the region.
  • 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.
    • The sequel reveals that Alabaster got rid of his Guardian by ripping the magic iron needle that gives a Guardian their power out of the back of her skull. She survived, for a while.
  • 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.
  • Power Incontinence: Orogeny, in two ways. On the one hand, orogenes instinctively stabilize earthquakes near them, even as young children. On the other, their fight-or-flight response also triggers their powers, so they need to discipline themselves not to cause a quake or freeze their surroundings solid when they're in stressful situations. Discussed when Schaffa explains that those instincts are rubbish at gauging the magnitude of a threat, which causes problems when you're a Person of Mass Destruction.
  • Precision F-Strike: When Schaffa reminds Syenite that she is not allowed to say "no" to him, she responds with "fucking no!"
  • Ragnarök Proofing: In a world where periodic apocalypses are inevitable, this has become a standard of virtue. Habitation is judged by susceptibility to damage from earthquake or tsunami to the point that most people consider islands uninhabitable by default. Instructions for surviving an apocalypse are literally written in stone and taught with religious reverence. Common standards of physical beauty are based on those most likely to survive a long, sunless Fifth Season. Yumenes has survived as long as it has by systematically controlling and lobotomizing oregenes and forcing them to quell equatorial shakes. And so on.
    • Various deadciv artifacts also qualify. Castrima's underground vault was found In Working Order despite having been buried under a lava flow for millennia.
    • The second book relates that for the past few thousand years, Lorists have preserved stonelore on specially-produced polymer tablets. Stone was no longer considered durable enough.
  • Really 700 Years Old: Hoa is at least twenty-seven thousand years old, but looks about eight. As in eight, eight, not "eight-thousand."
  • Required Secondary Powers: Energy is conserved when using orogeny, and is drawn from around the caster. This is one of the reasons why Orogenes are so deadly—they can easily suck all the heat of people around them, snap-freezing them to death. Syenite uses this at one point to project her orogeny to no productive end, simply to lower the temperature and cloak her ship in fog.
  • 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.
  • Superpowerful Genetics: Zig-zagged and discussed. The Fulcrum breeds orogenes with each other, especially the more powerful ones, in hopes of producing more orogenes or Guardians, which works to an extent, but orogenes are also born at random in the general population. It annoys the Fulcrum to end, since it means that orogeny will never be within their complete control.
  • Survivalist Stash: Every established comm has at least one of these, as commanded by stonelore, with the exception of the Fulcrum the Fulcrum orogenes are to all be immediately murdered by the Guardians during Seasons. So do many families and individuals. Essun raids her family's personal supplies before pursuing Jija.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Tomato Surprise:
    • Damaya, Syenite, and Essun are the same woman at different crises in her life.
    • To a lesser degree, Hoa is the narrator.
  • Training the Gift of Magic: Among orogenes, a child can start an earthquake, but it takes a master to throw a boulder. They train to use their abilities and senses in more precise ways, as well as to increase their overall power.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Unusual Euphemism: "Rust" replaces "fuck," as the go-to, universal curse word. That said, Syenite still uses "fuck" as a vulgar verb for having sex, and sometimes you'll hear a character curse with "Rusting fuck" or "Flaking, fucking rust."
    • There are several others, too, such as "Earthfires" for "hell".
  • Vicious Cycle: The Fifth Seasons are the result of this. This particular Fifth Season will last a thousand years, and there is a possibility that the disturbance that created the cycle can be reversed. Either way, this is humanity's last Season.
  • 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 Happened to the Mouse?: Subverted. We don't see what happens to Jija until the second book.
  • 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 taken away and lobotomized.
    The Fulcrum is not a school. Grits are not students. Orogenes are not people.
  • 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.