Death to Cynicism & Despair: The Fifth Sacred Thing by Starhawk

Posted 19th May 2021 by Sia in Blogathons, Crescent Classics, Fantasy Reviews, Queer Lit, Reviews / 2 Comments

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It seems appropriate to review The Fifth Sacred Thing for Wyrd & Wonder – because what could be more wyrd, and more full of wonder, than a real human utopia?

The Fifth Sacred Thing (Maya Greenwood #1) by Starhawk
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Science Fantasy
Representation: MCs of colour, queer cast, polyamory/free love
ISBN: 0307477657

Imagine a world without poverty, hunger, or hatred, where a rich culture honors its diverse mix of races, religions, and heritages, and the Four Sacred Things that sustain all life - earth, air, fire, and water - are valued unconditionally.

Now imagine the opposite: a nightmare world in which an authoritarian regime polices an apartheid state, access to food and water is restricted to those who obey the corrupt official religion, women are property of their husbands or the state, and children are bred for prostitution and war.

The best and worst of our possible futures are poised to clash in twenty-first-century California, and the outcome rests on the wisdom and courage of one clan caught in the conflict.


~Hopepunk + witchcraft = The Best
~peace is violence’s kryptonite
~bees are a girl’s best friend
~everyone is named John and everything is F I N E
~a utopia you’ll believe in
~‘we didn’t destroy the databanks, the crystals just don’t like you’

The Fifth Sacred Thing is a book I don’t know how to talk about.

It’s not one of the books I instantly recommend the moment I make a new friend. It’s not even a book I gift to fellow fantasy-readers. It’s a book I’m shy of showing to people. It feels so private, so personal, so intimate. To put The Fifth Sacred Thing into someone else’s hands is like giving them my warm, beating heart to hold.

Considering what the eponymous fifth sacred thing of the main characters’ philosophy is – spirit, or love – that seems entirely appropriate.

This is a book set after a climate and societal collapse. In the North – of what used to be California, if I put the pieces together correctly – a new and painfully perfect society has been built, where people of all races and creeds have come together in their determination to find a better way. It’s a city where every child speaks American Sign Language, where shrines to Yemaya and Kuan Yin and the Virgin Mary are equally honoured, where there is no violence and no hunger or thirst. It’s a city built by witches, where computers are powered by semi-sentient crystals and healers use as much magic as medicine to treat their patients. It’s a city that holds four things sacred – earth, air, fire, and water – and whose philosophy is based upon the truth that no one can own these things, and no one can be denied them.

It sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? The whole point of this book, though, is that it’s not. Is that it can be true.

It’s never going to be easy.

But it will always be worth it.

The Fifth Sacred Thing is a little bit of a manifesto, a little bit of an open question – and wholly an incredible story. We have three main characters: Maya, an elderly queer Jewish witch who was instrumental in the City’s creation; Bird, her biracial grandson; and Madrone, an immensely talented Latina witch-healer who is the grandchild of two of Maya’s lovers. Bird has been missing for ten years, after going south to scout out the lands of the Stewards – think Handmaid’s Tale, but turn the racism dial to 12 and add the worst perversion of Christianity you can imagine – and Madrone has spent about that long battling wave after wave of epidemics, which she and the other healers think might be an attempt at biological warfare from the Stewards.

The book opens during one such epidemic, and with Bird finally making his way home. What he has to tell his people is horrifying – the reality of life under the Stewards – and terrifying: the Stewards are definitely coming for the north.

How does a community built on peace defend itself against one built on violence?

First thing’s first: this isn’t a monologue of morals thinly disguised as a story. There’s no disguise necessary: the story is here, and it’s deep and rich and complicated. Madrone heads south to work with the rebel groups, who raid the Stewards’ supplies of medical drugs to get them to people who need them and rescue people who need rescuing (as much as they can). It’s not an easy journey, and it’s not easy work, and it’s not easy to read about the world Madrone finds in a city that’s the complete inversion of the one she grew up in. There are sexy lady pirates and terrifying angels and the secrets of bees to be learned; Madrone teaches as many as she can the basics of magical healing, but there are also rescues to attempt, and attacks to flee, and a thirst like she never imagined in this awful place where drinking water is not a right. Back home, Bird doesn’t know how to heal himself, and doesn’t know if he should even try to overcome his trauma, because that trauma makes him the only one who has a clue what’s coming. Maya tries to help him, and tries to help work out a strategy for dealing with the Stewards when they come. There are discussions, debates, factions, preparations to make.

And then the soldiers come.

It’s a story, and it’s a good one. It’s deep and meaningful and makes you question so many of the things we take for granted, so many of the things we believe we know. When is violence justified? Is it ever? Are some people just evil? What are souls? How do you forgive someone who has hurt you, really hurt you? Should you? Can you?

What are you willing to die for?

It’s a good story. It’s a brilliant story. By not flinching away from how difficult and complicated making and maintaining utopia is, The Fifth Sacred Thing made me believe that utopia is possible, and that’s a hope so big and so much that I don’t know what to do with it. But it’s very much something I needed reminding of, given the state of the world lately.

And I think one of the reasons that it works so well is that The Fifth Sacred Thing does not for one second pretend that it’s easy. Our main characters may be witches of various kinds, but they’re still human, and they still struggle with the same things you and I struggle with. Forgiveness and empathy are huge themes in this story, as is the – the journey to forgiveness, the quest you have to undergo to reach it. Because it’s not easy, and even more than that, many of us don’t want to forgive people who have done terrible things. When we’re hurt and grieving and angry, do we want to forgive the people who’ve made us feel that way? I know I don’t. I want to scream and hurt them back. I think many of us do. And we live in a world that often tells us that – wanting to hurt the people who’ve hurt us – makes us bad people. Turn the other cheek; don’t react to bullies and they’ll go away; I don’t care if they started it, you shouldn’t have hit back.

The Fifth Sacred Thing does not judge us for that impulse. That impulse – the desire to lash back at those who’ve hurt us – is natural. Even those who’ve lived lives of peace, like Madrone, feel it;

Oh, I am tired of being the Healer! I want to be the Destroyer, to rend and tear with my nails, to eat human flesh, to say no! no! no! until it all starts over again, soft and new.


She could hardly stay still, she wanted to dance and let her feet tumble civilizations, wave her hands in the air to cause thunder and hurricanes, drip sweat from her breasts to drown the fields. Don’t talk to me about compassion, talk to me about forest fires, volcanic eruptions, the whirlwind that clears its own path. Goddess, you have not made the world correctly; what you have birthed has sickened and poisoned itself. Knock it down and begin again.

But then Starhawk manages to break it down for the reader. No, it’s not fair. They hurt you. But if you hurt them back, where does it end? And it’s not, you have to be the better person. It’s more, look. The person who hurt you lives in a reality where hurting you was the only option. That doesn’t excuse it. But can you see that they are still human? Can you try to bring them into your reality?

It’s hard. It’s so hard.

But can you do it anyway?

I never felt like The Fifth Sacred Thing condemned violence-as-resistance. The rebels in the South are not branded villains for fighting back against oppression. It felt more like…like we should always grieve violence. The need for it. That it happens. What it does to people. I refuse to condemn people who use violence in defense of themselves or their loved ones, but I am sad that they need to.

This is a book that doesn’t pretend people aren’t complicated, or that they never fail, or that dark, terrible things never happen – but it’s a book about holding onto hope anyway. It’s a book that acknowledges that you get tired, and thirsty, and hurt, that being good is hard – but it’s a book about fighting to do good and be good anyway. It’s a book about trauma and non-violence and how alien the broken and unbroken can be to each other. It’s a book that reframes questions about monsters and violence, and demands we rethink our beliefs about the two. It’s a book that says, violence and evil will always lose – and actually manages to make you believe it.

They had reached for him; they had not abandoned him. Not because he deserved compassion, but because by their very nature they were emissaries of a power that was always everywhere offering itself, asking nothing in return, a force that set the bees in motion and colored the blossoms and made them sweet. That was the real gift, the true grace: not death, but love, the fifth sacred thing.

Do you know what hopepunk is? It’s weaponised optimism. It’s kindness and compassion as an act of defiance. Hopepunk says ‘yes, the world is fucked up, but fuck you, you can’t make me give up. I will be kind despite all the forces that would crush me down.’ This book is the essence of that; it’s hopepunk distilled. It’s about standing your ground even when you’re terrified, horrified, wounded. It’s about believing in something bigger and better than the nightmare you’re trapped in. It’s about breaking the dams and freeing the water for all to drink, freely and without fear.

I love The Fifth Sacred Thing because it makes me believe that things can be better. I love it because it does not flinch away from suffering, from darkness, from how complicated the entire question of violence or non-violence? is – but still makes me feel hope. I have never, ever seen another book, another author, who so perfectly braids together awfulness and optimism. Maybe I’m too fragile or sensitive, but most books that take me to dark places don’t quite manage to pull me out again, even when the author means to. This book pulls you out. Pulls you back. Pulls you home, and shows you how beautiful home is, and how much more beautiful it can be.

It’s not a comfort read; this is a book that will put your heart through the wringer, and sometimes you will flinch away from truths that are too painful or that you don’t want to believe, or from horrors that are too much to handle when you’ve been left feeling raw. But you won’t ever cringe from second-hand embarrassment, or roll your eyes at the naïveté of the characters or narrative, either. The Fifth Sacred Thing is death to cynicism and despair alike.

It’s magic.

And when your heart feels up to the task, I very much encourage you to read it.

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2 responses to “Death to Cynicism & Despair: The Fifth Sacred Thing by Starhawk

  1. I think that book changed me when I read it years ago. It made me believe that a better world is possible if you can imagine it and work for it.

    • Exactly. It’s just…soul-shaking, in the best way. I’ve never read anything else that made me believe so completely that things could be better. It changed the whole way I look at the world and other people.

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