This is not a story in the traditional sense. It’s an immense undertaking of building a world so complex it needs to be fed to the reader in pieces through the eyes of those with a perspective the reader can connect to. I’ve read other books with non-traditional narratives, but The Fifth Season goes a step beyond even that. I’m speaking in generalities as much because without context none of the specifics will have meaning as to avoid spoilers. This is definitely a book to be experienced as a whole.
It ends in a cliffhanger of sorts, but because it’s not a story exactly, the cliffhanger doesn’t cut you off but rather leads you forward. There are definitely things–important things–left hanging, but there’s no guaranty they’ll ever be resolved. Where early on I saw narratives similar to those in The Steamship Chronicles, it ends up in a very different place, driven by a mind that has lost its humanity. And yet, you understand that loss because you saw the events leading up to it and were part of the process. What happens is neither accidental nor undeserved as horrendous as it is. Every person is complicit, making a choice to go against their instincts to support the system, with the rare exception of the few who then become proof the system is necessary without the realization that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This book is subtly dark, but very dark if you ever take a breath and think about what’s shown in glimpses, as distant history, or as individual cruelty that might not be as individual as you expect. It’s bigger than that. It’s systematic dehumanization for the profit of the few but it’s so subtle that even those directly involved can delude themselves and deny what’s happening in part because they’re never given the whole story. The jailed become their own jailors, judges, juries, and executioners in an amazing manipulation of knowledge and history.
Going back to what I said from the start, I still maintain this is not a story (though the case could be made that it’s a collection of stories). Regardless, this doesn’t change how the book sucked me in even when I put the pieces together very early so the “big reveal” was nothing more than a confirmation. It doesn’t change how the characters are complex, layered, and absorbing. The narrative here is bigger than a story. It’s the size of a world, one we see through an unknown narrator telling us the perspectives of child, youth, and adult interwoven so we learn in chunks small enough to accept but which form a much greater tapestry with a very different narrative.
I read for story, always have. This book laughs at such a simple understanding and gives me so much more so the story, such that there was, is irrelevant. I know this is obscure, and possibly the strangest review I’ve written so far though I’ve said that before, but The Fifth Season is a powerful read and well worth the effort put in.