66 pages 2 hours read

N. K. Jemisin

The Fifth Season

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2015

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Summary and Study Guide


The Fifth Season is the first installment of author N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy—a “science fantasy” series that blends scientific explanation with the magical or supernatural elements of the fantasy genre. After its publication in 2015, the novel received the 2016 Hugo Award recognizing excellence in science fiction or fantasy writing. Jemisin was the first black woman to win the prize, and went on to break another record when her sequels to The Fifth SeasonThe Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky—won the Hugo Award in 2017 and 2018: To date, she’s the only writer to have received the prize in three consecutive years.

Content Warning: The source material contains instances of sexual coercion, sexual assault, child death, child sexual abuse, and enslavement.

Plot Summary

The Fifth Season takes place on an unnamed planet home to a single, massive continent known as the Stillness. For all of written history, constant seismic activity in the form of shakes (earthquakes) and blows (volcanic eruptions) has made precarious life in the Stillness; multiple societies have risen and fallen, usually ending as a result of the Fifth Seasons (volcanic winters) that tend to recur every few centuries.

The novel follows the interwoven storylines of three characters ultimately revealed as the same woman at different stages of her life: Damaya, Syenite, and Essun. Essun—in the novel’s present—is a middle-aged orogene: someone possessing the ability to control seismic activity, often by diverting kinetic or thermal energy from their surroundings. Sanzed society both fears and exploits orogenes’ abilities, and as the novel opens, Essun returns home from work to find that her husband Jija has murdered their son Uche after discovering he was orogenic. Jija also abducted their daughter Nassun, so Essun sets off to recover her surviving child and avenge her dead one.

Damaya and Syenite’s storylines unfold during similar moments of crisis. At 9 or 10 years old, Damaya inadvertently reveals her orogenic abilities in front of the rest of her comm; her parents report her to the authorities, who dispatch a man named Schaffa. Schaffa is a Guardian entrusted with the oversight of orogenes, and takes Damaya to the Fulcrum in Yumenes so that she can learn to control her powers and use them for the good of all Sanze. Damaya demonstrates her skill as an orogene, passing her first qualifying test a year ahead of schedule. At this point, she takes the name “Syenite,” since all orogenes bear the names of minerals.

Syenite’s story picks up years later, when she’s in her mid-twenties and has earned four rings (marks of her skill as an orogene). Her latest orders are to clear the coral from the harbor of a comm called Allia under the mentorship of a ten-ringer named Alabaster, with whom she is tacitly expected to conceive a child. However, when Syen attempts to clear Allia’s harbor, she accidentally raises a massive obelisk from the water. These floating objects—presumed to be the relics of an extinct civilization—are scattered throughout the Stillness and contain a power into which some orogenes can tap. This particular obelisk, though, is broken; when Syen reaches out to it as a Guardian threatens to kill her and Alabaster, she sets off a volcanic explosion.

Syen and Alabaster survive the eruption thanks to a mysterious stone eater, who carries them to an island called Meov outside the authority of Sanze. Alabaster and Syen (now pregnant with Alabaster’s child) begin a polyamorous relationship with an orogene named Innon. After roughly three years, however, the Fulcrum learns of Syen and Alabaster’s whereabouts and sends a contingent of Guardians to recapture them. In the ensuing battle, Innon is killed, a stone eater pulls Alabaster into the earth, and Syen blasts the Guardians’ ships apart, killing her son Coru so the Fulcrum can’t enslave him. Syen inadvertently survives and settles two years later in Tirimo under the name “Essun.”

Back in the novel’s present, Essun encounters a new Season that promises to be particularly severe: On the same day that Essun discovered Uche’s body, an orogene (later revealed to be Alabaster) drew on the power of an obelisk to open a massive rift in the Stillness, destroying Yumenes and creating the conditions for a millennia-long volcanic winter. Essun thus encounters many refugees during her journey, and eventually joins with a commless woman named Tonkee and a mysterious boy named Hoa—a stone eater. The trio end up in an underground comm called Castrima run by an orogene named Ykka. Although Jija and Nassun aren’t there, Alabaster is, and as the novel ends, he tells Essun that he needs her help to worsen the rift and accomplish a goal involving the planet’s missing moon. 

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