A remarkable book on the evil of slavery the ruthlessness of empires, the hunger for freedom and the persistence of hope.
“The Fifth Season” deserves all the praise it has received. It uses non-linear but easy to follow storytelling to explore heartbreaking themes by telling the story of people I grew to care about against the backdrop of an original, fully-realised, far-future version of Earth.
The struture of “The Fifth Season” requires you to trust the author enough to settle in your chair, enjoy each scene and wait for all the pieces to fall in place. The quality of the writing made this very easy for me to do.
The story is told directly to an unspecified reader for whom this is personal history. There are three stories, told in parallel, with slowly emerging links. I found this parallel exposition to be more powerful than a linear narrative because it initially increased the tension and gave me a puzzle to ponder and subsequently, as I understood more of what was going on, because it enabled me to put the strong emotions felt in each story storyline side-by-side and because the three stories together amplified the sense of loss as bad things happened again and again.
The world-building is strong but focused. Almost everything we learn deepens our understanding of the situation the main characters are in and why people behave as they do. It also delivers a continuous sense of foreboding as tense and inescapable like living beneath an active volcano.
The cover calls “The Fifth Season” an Epic Fantasy but I think that is a misnomer. An epic narrative celebrates heroes and glorious victories. This narrative dissects the cruelty of the powerful and the hero myths they use to feed their sense of entitlement to rule and as a technique for repressing and controlling everyone else. This book is not fantasy. There is no magic or magical creatures. There is only science and a long-enough timescale for the dance between science and nature to produce millions of iterations of change. The scale of the book is huge but the focus is always deeply, painfully personal.
This is Science Fiction doing what Science Fiction does best, holding up a mirror to us and imagining the nightmare we are capable of creating because of who we are and the actions we might take to become who we should be.
At first it may seem that the centre of the story belongs to the things that don’t exist in our world: people with the power to control earthquakes, sentients non-humans that can move through stone, a planetary crust that is almost always unstable, the ruins and artefacts of dead civilisations and an Empire that has survived for thousands of years by being tough enough to do whatever was necessary to survive the Seasons of apocalyptic geothermal activity that killed all the civilisations before them.
All of that is the cleverly constructed filigree setting for the jewel that the power of the book comes from: a bone-deep understanding of the evil of slavery and the ruthless hunger for power that corrupts the heart of every empire, making it cruel and hateful.
There’s no preaching, just a slowly dawning realisation of how this world really works and with it, a growing anger, carefully nurtured and stoked, the way you ignite a fire that will last a while.
We see what it means for an adult to be owned, to be an asset, to be used as a weapon, to have no power over their own bodies, to have even their children taken away and owned by others.
We see how emperors and slavers institutionalise abuse by dehumanising those that they make slaves while domesticating the slaves themselves by leashing them from childhood to hopes of being worthy of love and respect. As one emperor explained it, you control those with power that you fear but which you can use by enslaving them and telling them
“…they can be great someday, like us. Tell them they belong among us, no matter how we treat them. Tell them they must earn the respect which everyone else receives by default. Them them there is a standard for acceptance; that standard is simply perfection. Kill those who scoff at those contradictions, and tell the rest that the dead deserved annihilation for their weakness and doubt. Then they’ll break themselves trying for what they’ll never achieve”
Yet what stays with me most are the characters in the book. These are real people, not always likeable, deeply fallible, cruelly twisted by the world they live in, who nevertheless persist. They continue. They strive. They take love where they can find it. They expect little and they hope less but they cannot bring themselves to give up.
The audiobook version of “The Fifth Season” is more than fifteen hours long yet it never dragged and I never wanted to set it aside and come back later. This is because it is so well written but also because Robin Miles delivers a superb performance as the narrator.