In a world called the Stillness, planet-wide apocalyptic events are routine. Cataclysms called Seasons occur every 100 years or so, each one effectively wiping out human life on the Stillness. Every fifth Season is especially terrible, lasting decades, and the Stillness is just about to start a Fifth Season. This time, a very powerful magic user causes it on purpose.
One unique feature of this troubled planet is the presence of super-powered humans called orogenes. Orogenic power is the ability to control geological features, and it has positive uses, such as stilling earthquakes, and negative uses, such as killing people by freezing the air around them.
People who are not orogenes treat orogenes like animals. Well-trained orogenes are enslaved by an organization called the Fulcrum, where they serve the Sanzed Empire with their talents. If two normal parents discover their child has orogenic power, they will either kill the child for being a monster, allow the mob in their village to kill the child or call the Fulcrum to take the child away.
This story follows the narratives of three orogene women; a child, a young woman, and a middle-aged woman, observing the hardships they endure and the racism they face because of their abilities. Near the planet’s capital city of Yumenes, an orogene man lifts a large piece of the earth’s crust and breaks it, causing a devastating earthquake that will eventually cause a Fifth Season and likely end all human life on the planet.
In a little village called Tirimo, an orogene woman named Essun is left devastated when her husband, Jija, murders their 3-year-old son Uche and kidnaps their daughter, Nassun. Essun has hidden her orogene powers from her husband, but both of her children had the power as well. Since Uche was too young to control himself, Essun suspects that he carelessly displayed some orogeny, which prompted his father to beat him to death. Essun feels the cataclysmic earthquake coming her way and, as she grieves, she redirects the earthquake around her community (known as a comm).
In another era, Damaya is a child locked in her parents’ barn so that she can’t escape. Damaya thinks she is about to be sold as a slave because she revealed her orogene power. Schaffa Guardian Warrant, who is not a slaver but a Guardian who will take her to the capital city of Yumenes to serve the government as a member of the Fulcrum, retrieves her. Guardians protect/enslave the orogenes. Damaya instantly respects and fears Schaffa, and he becomes her surrogate father on the long journey from her comm to Yumenes.
Essun sits by her son’s corpse for a few days before going outside. Her comm of Tirimo is on lockdown because there’s a cloud of sulphur in the air and they suspect a Season is coming. She’s surprised to learn that Jija hasn’t killed Nassun but has taken her with him in a cart. Essun now has a reason to live, since her daughter may still be rescuable.
She almost makes it out of town before someone attempts to shoot her. She reacts with rage. Her power causes a small earthquake, and she intentionally breaks the underground aquifer beneath the comm to ensure that they will lose their water supply and die. The people closest to her are flash-frozen to death because when orogenes use their power, it drops the temperature in their immediate vicinity. She leaves Tirimo with meager supplies to search for her daughter.
At another unspecified time in history, Syenite is a highly skilled Fulcrum orogene who is expected to conceive an orogene child with Alabaster, a man with even greater skills than her own. She has no choice in the matter and regards the whole process with distaste and resignation.
Alabaster is horrified at having to be Syenite’s breeding partner because it’s another example of how they are treated like animals. Alabaster and Syenite are sent on horseback to the port city of Allia to clear the coral that is obstructing the harbor, but the mission is only an excuse to get them to be together to procreate.
Essun journeys south and encounters a boy named Hoa. His skin is albino-white, his face and body are strangely proportioned, and he doesn’t seem to understand anything about society. Essun’s motherly instinct takes over, and she allows Hoa to journey with her.
On the road to Yumenes, Schaffa breaks Damaya’s hand in order to teach her control. He tells her that she must learn to restrain her impulses and not use her power when she experiences pain, pressure or hatred. He says he loves her, but that she has no human rights and must never say no to him because orogenes cannot resist their Guardians in any way. Damaya is conflicted because she loves her new Guardian, but is traumatized by him intentionally causing her excruciating pain.
On the road to Allia, Alabaster explains to Syenite that Yumenes is a city in the Sanzed Empire, and Sanze is the only country to survive a Fifth Season seven times. In a world where earthquakes are as common as rainstorms, building and maintaining an empire seems impossible. However, Yumenes is able to extend their empire because they have orogene node-maintainers stationed across all the outskirts of their country, stilling every potential earthquake before it damages people or structures. Syenite thinks that node-maintainers must be lazy orogenes who couldn’t do their work well enough to stay in Yumenes, but Alabaster seems to disagree with her impression.
Syenite and Alabaster continue their journey until they encounter a sudden massive erupting volcano, which they stop. Alabaster insists that they visit the nearest node outpost because the node-maintaining orogene responsible for calming shakes must have gone wild and intentionally tried to murder the entire region. When they arrive, Syenite is shocked to find that the deceased node-maintainer at the outpost was not a lazy, bored adult worker, but a victimized orogene child in a coma, his shriveled body kept alive by machines.
Alabaster tells her that orogene children who don’t learn control are confined in this way, kept suspended in a room, lobotomized and fed by tubes, only alive enough to calm the earthquakes of the region instinctively. Syenite also notices the dead child’s shocking physical resemblance to Alabaster and recalls that he has produced twelve 12 children with other women already. Alabaster won’t say if the child is his, but from his distress Syenite guesses the truth.
Damaya becomes a star pupil at the Fulcrum, but along with the other orogene trainees she is not treated like a child nor even like a solider, but like a weapon being polished for battle. One day she meets a non-orogene girl named Binof, who asks for her help in finding a secret underground chamber beneath the Fulcrum’s main building. The two girls eventually do find the underground chamber, which contains a massive six-sided hole that is unfathomably deep. The girls are discovered, and their trespass is so severe that Damaya is told she must face her first orogene “ring test” to become a true solider or die. Damaya’s portion of the story ends here.
Essun and Hoa meet Tonkee, a commless geomest (scientist) full of boundless curiosity. Hoa is not an orogene but can somehow sense Nassun’s movement as she is traveling, so Essun allows Hoa to lead her and Tonkee for several weeks. Eventually they arrive at a place where Hoa loses Nassun’s trail because he says there are lots of orogenes in this place, and their signals muddy each other.
The place is Castrima, an underground comm carved out of a geode, and their leader Ykka is a charismatic orogene woman. There are air-purifying mechanisms in the cave, run only by orogeny, proving that a previous civilization highly valued their orogenes. Essun is in awe of all the technology, but now despairs of finding her daughter.
Syenite and Alabaster arrive in Allia and Syenite resurrects a giant six-sided crystal obelisk out of the ocean when she attempts to clear the coral from the harbor. She also sets off a volcano but, even though Allia is destroyed, she and Alabaster are saved by Alabaster’s friend Antimony, who is a nonhuman creature called a stone-eater. The stone-eater’s origins and powers are unknown. Antimony leaves the two of them on an island run by friendly pirates who actually like orogenes.
Syenite and Alabaster establish a polyamorous family with a pirate captain named Innon. Syenite has Alabaster’s baby, and two years pass on the island. She truly loves her son, Coru, but she is bored of quiet island life and begs Innon to let her join a pirate voyage with him. Innon agrees to let her come along, but Alabaster is angry and afraid that she’ll leave him permanently if she ever ventures away.
Syenite does go on the voyage, falling into serious piracy, destroying and sinking ships full of living people because Innon tells her to do so. She asks to go back to Allia, and there she seals shut the open magma chamber that exploded over the town over two years earlier. As the pirate ship leaves the desolate Allia, Syenite notices a lone Guardian on land, watching her. For a couple of years the Fulcrum thought Syenite and Alabaster were dead, but now they’re known to be living with the coastal pirates.
Essun discovers that Tonkee is Binof, the girl she met as a child. She’s been following Essun for almost 30 years. The Stillness, their planet, is full of seemingly random giant flying crystal obelisks, and Tonkee discovered that the six-sided hole in the ground under the Fulcrum is where the obelisks come from. She hopes Essun can command obelisks. The apparently nonsensical movements of the obelisks are actually the obelisks slowly moving in the direction of powerful orogenes who can command them.
Hoa is revealed to be a stone-eater, and he eats crystals, which seem to be his own essence or spirit, enabling his current body to function. Hoa says he likes Essun, but doesn’t explain why he’s accompanying her. There are other stone-eaters in Castrima, but Hoa distrusts them.
Four ships full of Guardians come to Syenite’s island to retrieve their lost orogenes. Antimony, the stone-eater who likes Alabaster, drags him to safety, and Alabaster makes Syenite promise not to let the Guardians take Coru. In the confusion of the guardians’ attack, she’s separated from Innon and Coru.
A Guardian kills Innon, and then Schaffa arrives and greets Syenite, making it clear that Damaya and Syenite are the same person, just at different points in history. Syenite picks up Coru and connects her mental energy to a nearby amethyst obelisk, which she knows will amplify her fighting power. She smothers her son to death and unleashes a massive flood of power to try to kill the Guardians. We learn that Hoa finds her floating in the ocean after the explosion, and rescues her although she is not conscious of it.
In Castrima, Essun is told that an old friend wants to see her. The old friend is Alabaster, the very same man who a few weeks prior caused the earthquake that will likely end all life on the earth. He is about to die, and he asks Essun—who was Syenite and who was Damaya—to break the world further. Before he can clarify his meaning, the novel ends.