set in 21st century San Francisco
and other parts of California
In the novel, a substantial portion of the world - exactly how much we're not sure - has been taken over by the Stewards and the Millenialists, an extreme right-wing Christian group that believes things that are completely at odds with Christianity as I know it (for instance, they believe that Christ was never embodied because he's too pure to set foot on the earth which is by their definition evil.) The city of San Francisco escaped their rule through largely non-violent resistance when they attempted to take over. For decades, San Francisco has lived free, ruled by consensus. They have not built any weapons because they realized they had to make a choice between food and defense and decided to choose food. Now the Stewards have turned their attention back to San Francisco, and war is imminent. San Francisco must find a way to survive and retain its freedom without becoming more like their would-be conquerors.
The main characters of the novel are Bird, a musician who has been imprisoned by the Stewards for a decade; Madrone, a healer working in San Francisco; and Maya, an old woman who was there when San Francisco originally resisted the Stewards.
"The fifth sacred thing" is spirit; the first four are the elements, earth, fire, air and water.
I really liked this book. The ending was a bit unsatisfactory - it felt a little rushed. Starhawk's treatment of magic was fascinating and detailed, as one might expect given her long involvement in paganism. The characterization, world building, and plot were all well-executed. For a first novel this is quite an impressive book. Heck, it's even impressive if you forget that it's a first novel.
The San Francisco that Starhawk paints is a fascinating place, where ecology and tolerance reign supreme. Her fictional city boasts a fabulous amount of religious diversity, with witches and nuns living next door to one another and tending each others' gardens in times of need. I think I'd like to live there.