May 13, 2024

Review: The Siege of Burning Grass

The Siege of Burning Grass The Siege of Burning Grass by Premee Mohamed
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book starts out as fantasy and evolves into more-or-less science fiction at the end: it's admitted that the human inhabitants of the planet are the descendants of colonists who came from (presumably) Earth thousands of years ago, and their floating cities and other technology are plausibly the repurposed remnants of their colony ships. This, however, is very much not the novel's focus. Its central conflict is the opposing philosophies of violence/war and nonviolence/pacifism, as embodied by the protagonist Alefret and his jailer/torturer/warrior companion Qhudur.

Alefret is a leader and founder of the Pact, the pacifist group who staunchly refuses to fight in the never-ending war between the conquering, biotech-based (they have giant pillbugs serving as tanks, for example) country of Varkal and the more technological country of Meddon, with their floating (antigrav-powered, probably, though it's never specified) cities. At the book's opening, Alefret has been captured after one of his legs was blown off in the war, and the Varkallagi medtechs are regrowing it with their specially bred medicinal wasps. He is offered the chance to win the war by using his reputation to infiltrate the final Meddon floating city and bring it down. This book is the story of Alefret's and Qhudur's journey to that floating city, and what they really find there.

Alefret is an interesting, complicated protagonist: he is an extremely large man (seven feet four) who is viewed as a "freak" and a "monstrosity" by Qhudur and the people in his home village:

So huge, so ugly; look at that face, must be simple, he'll never speak, never read, never think, not really. He'll eat you out of house and home if he lives. And you can forget having in-laws, forget being taken care of when you're older, you'll die alone and penniless, you should never have let him be born. All those things people said to them as Alefret watched. As if he could not understand the words. His parents had never defended him, only nodded, wept, nodded.

He wished he could hate them for it, but even now, with them both dead, he could not; there was only a great bewilderment, because he could speak, and could write, and think, and they dismissed it all, till he himself wondered whether he really could do any of those things or was simply imagining them, locked into a skull as thick as everyone said he had. As thick as a bull's, they said. No room for a brain. And that great misshapen forehead: like horns.

Even when he was older, and had made his living teaching mathematics and geometry and science to the village children, when he had his own school at the family farm, sold his own wool and eggs, even when he purchased his house, the village said: We love you. And in the next breath: You monster.

Qhudur, Alefret's minder, is sent with him to infiltrate Meddon's floating city. Qhudur is dangerous, and more than half nuts, and espouses some disturbing ideas of his own:

" You're part of the masses. You think you shouldn't be given the vote?"

"I don't vote with the masses. Anyway, both countries used to have the right idea. Ruled by a king. Or a dictator. Maybe with a small council of wise men unaffected by this...rabble. More educated. Able to think for themselves instead of doing what everyone around them is doing."

Alefret sighed. It was another rehearsed speech. Qhudur had again betrayed his youth, no matter how experienced he claimed to be in matters of war. He thought like a surly teenager. In his daydreams, when he fantasized about the subjugation and (no doubt) mandatory high-pressure washing of this hypothetical mob, he was never among them. Qhudur was the king, the tyrant, the grand vizier: no undignified crowd of ignoramuses had voted him into power. He had power because he was one of the ones who deserved power. Or he had been appointed by a man of power, singled out, sanctified and raised up, to sit on this mythical council of wise men.

When Qhudur and Alefret finally reach the floating city (they're towed there by one of Varkal's giant genetically-engineered pteranodons) they meet up with an underground group inspired by Alefret's writings. Alefret tries to start a nonviolent revolution in the city:

"It's not the way to end the war," Alefret said, trying to quell the thin man's unease. "It's a way to end the war. Nonviolent solutions to anything have to be tried again and again and again, and at different angles and in different ways and with different people. Governments like the violent solution because they've tried it, it works, and it's fast. They don't want to conceive of anything different. But there are other things to try--slower, more experimental, because they call for more people. And anything with lots of people moves slowly. But it has more power when it does."

This tension, this ongoing grappling, between violence and nonviolence, war and pacifism, makes for fascinating reading. This is not a breezy, fast-paced book. Alefret manages to thwart Qhudur's murderous plans and bring the floating city down without much loss of life, but we see at the end that there is still much more work to be done. Alefret is going to return to his home town of Edvor, see if he has any friends remaining, and start over: organizing "properly this time," as he puts it. The SF/fantasy elements are there, but the worldbuilding isn't the book's focus: the ideas and themes are. It makes for a very good read, if the reader is willing to adjust their expectations to what they'll actually be getting. It's an unusual story, but it's worth it.

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