"That we’re not human is just the lie they tell themselves so they don’t have to feel bad about how they treat us—" [loc. 4197]
The Fifth Season is first in the new 'Broken Stone' trilogy by Jemisin, whose Inheritance Trilogy (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms and The Kingdom of Gods -- links to my reviews) was met with critical acclaim. Here, the setting is a world regularly ravaged by seismic activity. (Islands and coasts are regarded as dangerous places to live: geological hotspots threaten the former, tsunami the latter.) The world is littered with the remnants of 'deadcivs', many of which were destroyed by Seasons -- periods of natural catastrophe, various in form (supervolcanoes, floods, gasses) but all geological in origin, which are inimical to human life. Notably, people refer to Father, rather than Mother, Earth.
The geological instability is partially controlled by orogenes -- the derogatory colloquial term is 'roggas' -- who 'take movement and warmth and life from [their] surroundings, amplify it by some indefinable process of concentration or catalysis or semi-predictable chance, push movement and warmth and death from the earth. Power in, power out'. [loc. 902] Orogenes are a minority, both valued and feared: many are controlled by the Empire, and by the Guardians who can contain and absorb an orogene's power. It is depressingly unsurprising that orogenes are subject to inhuman -- dehumanising -- treatment in order to further the power of those who control them.
The Fifth Season tells the stories of three orogene females: Essun, whose son has been killed because he showed signs of being an orogene; Damaya, a small girl who is sent away by her parents because she shows signs of being an orogene; and Syen, short for Syenite, a six-ringed orogene who encounters the much more powerful Alabaster (she's supposed to conceive a child by him) and begins to realise the horror and cruelty that underpins her world.
Wired recently featured an interview with Jemisin, in which she said that The Fifth Season was inspired in part by the Ferguson shooting and by the Black Lives Matter: "This novel is, in a lot of ways, my processing the systemic racism that I live with, and see, and am trying to come to terms with". Oppression in The Fifth Season has more to do with ability than skin colour, but the techniques of oppression are horribly familiar: dehumanisation, selective breeding, the lie that if you just behave nicely you'll be all right.
Jemisin's world-building is stupendous, and her authorial voice -- which interjects occasionally, always parenthetically, always to the point -- light and dry. There's a lyric, oral quality to her prose, and she pulls off a narrative sleight-of-hand which I had not expected. (Surprisingly, though, I did guess the identity of the thing that's missing: 'who misses what they have never, ever even imagined?' [loc. 1780]. To explain why I guessed correctly, though, would be to spoil the surprise.) Well-paced, interesting plot, and credible, likeable, changeable characters: a very accessible and enjoyable novel that is also, I think, a strong contender for next year's Hugo.