Posts Tagged ‘War’

Warning: spoilers for both books.

Without question, Daughter of Smoke and Bone is one of the best books I’ve ever read in any genre, not just because it’s heart-stoppingly original, exquisitely written, gorgeously characterised, perfectly structured and amazingly worldbuilt, but because it defies easy categorisation – at least on the surface. On first perusal, it reads as YA urban fantasy right up until you realise it’s somehow transmuted into adult epic fantasy, and when the hell did that happen? Which is less confusing than it is brilliant, Taylor’s skill at successive big reveals being consummate; the point being, though, that it’s really both and neither. What Daughter is – what the series is, as Days of Blood and Starlight makes clear – is an epic portal fantasy, and once you come to that realisation, the whole starts to become… well, not clear, because the story was never unclear, but better contextualised.

Because whether we mean to or not, we all as readers – as audiences – rely on narrative signposting to tell us what kind of story we’re in. If we misread those signs, then it’s easy to trick ourselves into thinking that the story itself is somehow at fault for failing to meet our expectations, when more often than not, the fault is ours for assuming they were valid to begin with. And I say this now because, in reading other reviews of Starlight – many of which are mixed – the single common thread seems to be a species of bewilderment, or complaint, or uncertainty, or surprise at the very least, that the book wasn’t what the reviewer thought it should be. And prior to having read it, that worried me a little, because Daughter was so incredible that obviously – obviously! – it was always going to be a difficult act to follow, which is so often true of impressive first installments. But now, it seems that, at least in some cases, the problem isn’t with the book, but with the expectations of the audience: or, more specifically, the expectation that a story which has as its starting point the genocide of the heroine’s people by her former lover would be anything other than a war story.

Days of Blood and Starlight is a dark, heartbreaking exploration of the consequences of terrorism, empire, slavery, dehumanisation, power and sacrifice, and the myriad ugly ways in which violence and retribution are self-perpetuating. It is also – quite naturally, given the scope of the worldbuilding, but perhaps jarringly to anyone who took the urban fantasy elements at the start of Daughter to be thematically integral to the series rather than a skillfully executed smokescreen – epic. Literally: the bulk of the story takes place in the world of Eretz, which is at war, and so employs multiple POV characters – many new, and some of them one-shots – to give us an all-over view of the conflict. As any habitual, critical reader of epic works will tell you, this is an easy gambit to get wrong: too many new characters can bog the narrative, drive it off track, or otherwise detract from the central, pivotal struggle. But in the case of Starlight, Taylor has managed this potentially hazardous structure with a rare graceful economy – in large part, I suspect, because her native writing style is so uniquely beautiful. In all respects, Taylor’s prose is like the musculature of a hunting cat: glossy, gorgeous, evocative and a form of poetry in its own right, but perfectly balanced, powerful and with not an ounce of flesh wasted. All of which – Taylor’s literary skill and Starlight’s martial themes both – can be summed up in a single, encompassing sentence:

“What can a soldier do when mercy is treason, and he is alone in it?”

This question, ultimately, cuts to the heart of the novel. Akiva’s actions in bringing about the fall of Loramendi – and, as a direct consequence, the effective genocide and enslavement of the chimaera – are unforgivable. Akiva knows this, Karou knows this, the narrative knows this; and yet, because this is a hard, dark story, both the reader and Akiva are still forced to confront the reality of what comes next – or rather, the fact that something does come next. The world doesn’t stop nor the clock turn back: Akiva isn’t trying for redemption, but still he has to move forwards, all the while dragging the weight of what he’s done, because there isn’t any alternative. A new world still needs to be fought for, even by people like him. But Akiva isn’t alone in having blood on his hands: as Thiago’s new resurrectionist, Karou effectively enables his campaign of terrorism – the slaughter of innocent civilians, mothers and children – by building him a new and brutal army. Akiva’s betrayal has broken her; she is grieving, pained both physically and mentally by the strains of her task, and tortured by shame and guilt at the thought of her role in what happened at Loramendi. And yet, this doesn’t excuse her ignorance, the length of time it takes her to understand the use to which her gifts are being put – the bleak and utter darkness of Thiago’s revenge. Just as Akiva is culpable for the massacre of chimaera, so is Karou made culpable for the slaughter of angels.

Blinded by rage and pain and grief, both characters have lent themselves to the execution of terrible deeds and the support of monsters. Akiva’s might be the greater crime, but in either case, there’s no coming back from what they’ve done. What happens next isn’t a question of balancing the scales – there can be no balance – but finding a way to live in what remains of their world, and somehow, maybe, to remake it. And as both find themselves serving under commanders without mercy – Joram and Jael for Akiva, with their dreams of conquest; Thiago for Karou, with his bloody revenge against innocents – both, as Starlight progresses, find the strength for mercy where mercy means treason, building their rebellious hopes in secret. And there is hope: in Sveva, the Dama girl freed from captivity by the rebels; in the true love shared by Zuzana and Mik. Though seemingly incongruous at times, the latter’s inclusion is vital: a bodily reminder – to Karou, to the reader, to the chimaera – of what, in all this blood and catastrophe, the fighting is actually *for*. A simple thing, perhaps; but without the presence of Mik and Zuzana to counterbalance the horror and remind Karou of her human self, Starlight would be an altogether bleaker, more desolate novel.

Even so, the finale is harrowing. This being a war story, Taylor hasn’t spared us the threat of sexual violence against women; or rather, has acknowledged its existence in Liraz’s fears, not of the enemy, but the appetites of her own commander, and her fury at the whole awful system of soldier-bastards fathered on unwilling concubines that underpins Joram’s reign. “These are our mothers,” she fumes at one point – and just like that, we realise her loyalty to the empire is broken (if, indeed, it ever really existed). But at the end, it’s Karou who finds herself facing Thiago’s appetites – the same angry, violent, possessive lust which, when thwarted originally, lead him to torture Akiva and behead Madrigal. Starlight is not an easy read, but in a book brimming with ugliness and torture, the final few chapters are the hardest to read of all.

And yet somehow, despite all the horror, Taylor still manages to end on a note of courage, with just enough stray threads left purposefully dangling to ensure that, whatever the next book brings, it’s bound to be nuanced and complex. Days of Blood and Starlight is a powerful, purposeful novel that subverts our expectations even as it builds them, forcing its characters through darkness only so that they might relearn hope. A truly worthy successor to Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and easily one of the best books I’ve read this year.

It’s fair to say I think about elves more than the average person; that is to say, firstly, that I think of them at all, and secondly, that a sizeable chunk of this time is dedicated to theorising what elves really are. Among other things, this makes me slightly crazy. But I’ve come up with a theory. And now, rejuvinated by the illustrious Harkaway’s recent musings on cryonics, I’m ready to show and tell. Or maybe just tell, in this case. Whatever.

Anyway.

Elves, according to a wide range fantastic and mythological sources, are essentially very pretty people who live damn near forever in beautiful cities considerably superior to those of other races by the grace of their higher intellect, magic, advanced technology or a combination of all three. Outside of cities, they dwell in forests or natural areas, usually in a deeply symbiotic relationship with their surroundings, but in either instance, elven society is usually lauded as being progressive, or at least very successful. They are highly culturally advanced, but despite professing a preference for peace, tend, when roused, to be lethal in war. Outsiders often know little about them, as they prefer not to mingle with humankind, and their settlements are often isolated; typically, they also exhibit a low birth-rate in compensation for their incredible longevity. There is also a strong tendency to infer relationships between elves and dragons, or elves and white horses of superior stamina and intellect, both of which species are, in such instances, rarely if ever found elsewhere, granting their elvish masters the exclusive advantage of swift transport in largely medieval settings. Finally, elves are frequently described as placing a dual emphasis on learning, academic or otherwise, and on leisurely, creative passtimes.

Got all that?

Good.

Now, if we take the above hallmarks of elfness, remove the fantasy connotations, and render them as a set of socio-cultural markers, we end up with the following list of real-world characteristics:

1. Longer than average lifespans;

2. Objectively exceptional but culturally normative looks;

3. Technological superiority at an everyday level;

4. An outward preference for pacifism underwritten by extreme martial capabilities;

5. A preference for isolation from less advanced societies;

6. Largely urban lifestyles balanced against deeply held environmental convictions;

7. Access to superior modes of transportation and information relay;

8. A low average birthrate; and

9. A largely functional societal model extolling the virtues of both learning and leisure.

Sound familiar?

I find it both amusing and ironic that the mythical beings of early European culture are starting to look like the end point of modern Western society. True, we don’t live hundreds of years, but our lifespans are ever-increasing thanks to the ongoing advance of medical science. Give it another couple of decades, and who knows where we’ll be? And true, we’re not universally beautiful, but there is an increasing emphasis on physical perfection and achieving a set body type. With the advent of plastic surgery, many people now choose to alter their own appearance, and consider, too, the unveiling of the first ‘designer baby’ clinic in LA, where the new practice of cosmetic medicine allows parents to select the appearence of their future children.

Technological superiority? While it’s true that most of the world is now online, there’s certainly accuracy to the statement that affluent western, eastern and northern European nations have access to more and better gadgets than their counterparts in Africa, South-East Asia and South America. Similarly, technological prowess confers the advantage of both swift, secret information relay and rapid transportation worldwide. The notion of esposuing pascifism but practicing violence is, traditionally, a hallmark of nations throughout history; nonetheless, it seems particularly apt in a day and age when countries can initiate wars or engage in battles so geographically removed from their own turf that no risk of invasion is run, and where stockpiling WMDs has become routine practice. As for isolation, one need only look at the recent global tightening of immigration laws, particularly in the west: we might praise the notion of living in multicultural societies, but still remain fearfully recalcitrant when it comes to the very process which allows them to take shape.

The recent passion for reducing our carbon footprint while retaining an urban lifestyle is, to me, a particularly elvish dualism, and one which is sweeping most of the developed world. Similarly, while it’s difficult to try and argue for a lowered birthrate on such an enormous and diverse scale (although China’s One Child Policy is an intruiging counter-example), anecdotally, there seems to be a trend of affluent, educated women giving birth later and to fewer children, while our childhoods – or, more particularly, the time we spend at school and under the parental roof - is growing. Our current social model promotes a minimum of thirteen years’ schooling, while more and more people are attending university as a matter of course. At the same time, we deeply value labour-saving devices, the creation of entertainment and the right to leisure time, which is arguably a kind of social symbiosis: we work hard at learning how to do less in one sphere of daily life in order to create more time for learning in another, which in turn leads to more time, and also to the necessity for each generation to learn enough to keep up.

In short, we are growing into elves: not the fey creatures of our early imaginings, but into long-lived, scientific, face-selecting humans of a new technological era. Whether for good or ill, I’m not prepared to judge, but in either case, the comparison seems warranted. Which leaves only the question of magic, that elusive quality so associated with mythological elfhood; and yet even here, we might find a real-world comparison, in the words of Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree.

Because if any one of us went back in time to the genesis of elven myths; if we stood before our ancestors, iPhone-wielding, smooth-skinned, nylon-wearing, bedecked in even the cheapest, meanest jewellery and spoke of our world, what else could they name us - what else could they think us - but elves?

Apparently, America’s military isn’t strong enough for the 20th century.

This is a bit like saying that if lions were bigger, they could hunt elephants. Of course they could! But in the meantime, they are still lions, replete with claws, jaws, teeth, muscles and power enough to maintain a place at the tippy-top of the food chain, and incidentally to dispatch, in fair combat, just about anything else on the planet desirous of messing with them. However, even if a coterie of mad scientists were keen on breeding a strain of Giant Super-Lions with atomic brains and laser-eyes, I would still prefer this to America developing the real-world equivalent of a death ray.

Y’know why? ‘Coz lions, awesome predators though they may be, are still in no danger of blowing up the entire fucking planet.

Behold my staggering lack of confidence in human restraint, mercy and sanity when it comes to pushing the Big Red Button, as personified by this quote from the above article:

“To be sure, there are serious arguments both for and against developing such a system. Part of the justification is that the U.S. military already has such a capability. Unfortunately, it’s nuclear, which renders it worthless for anything but Armageddon.”

Let’s tackle this statement one sentence at a time. First off, there are “serious arguments” for such a system? As in, in favour of? Pro? Sweet Frickety Moses. I can argue seriously to be paid a $100,000 salary to stay home, write books and watch Dr Who  (incidentally, if anyone does want to pay me for this, please contact ASAP), but that doesn’t mean it’s a good argument, no matter how serious I am.

Similarly, very small children can argue quite vociferously for their right to stay up late, hit each other with Tonka trucks and eat sugar until they vomit, but that doesn’t mean any right-thinking adult should let them. In this instance, at least, there are signs of prevailing intelligence, Congress having blocked George Bush from building his new toy two years in a row. The article phrases this as: “Lawmakers are concerned that Russia, and soon China, might mistake the launch of a conventionally-armed Trident with the start of a nuclear war against them — and respond in kind before realizing they were mistaken.”  (My emphasis.)

Secondly: part of the justification for building an Awesome New Weapon (ANW) is that – wait for it – they already have one. Is it lonely, do you think? Are they trying to get it a mate? If the ANW were a giant panda, I can see why finding it a friend and eagerly awaiting the pitter-patter of little panda paws would be a good thing. There would be cute photos, and women worldwide would go, “Awwww.” But we are discussing high-tech, city-destroying weaponry, and not a photogenic variety of large, endangered fauna, so I’m going to go out on a limb and say no.

Thirdly: this existing ANW is nuclear. Oh – this makes it better. The Awesome New Weapon is too awesome. They want permission to build a slightly less powerful variant (i.e. one which will leave vast stretches of God’s Green Earth inhabitable for Americans after they’ve won the Next Great War, but still destroy the lives of countless millions) and use that instead. How do they describe it? Safe as houses, aye: “The lack of any explosive would generate precise mayhem, “comparable to the type of limited damage caused by meteor strikes.””

Meteor strikes? Meteor strikes. This is their benign military alternative to nuclear Ragnarok? This, according to the article, “Sounds nifty, until you read the fine print”?

Nifty?

Jesus.

The fine print (for those who are wildly curious) means, essentially, that the weapon “represents only a “niche capability” designed to attack stationary terrorists or nuclear weapons or supplies,” and not, say, anything that moves. As weapons go, I almost like the sound of that, except (warning, warning, Danger Will Robinson) “there remains the challenge of finding a target in the first place”. (Translation: we can, potentially, hit anything – just not necessarily what we were aiming at.)

The next paragraph lists two (notably specific) scenarios in which the system “could” be perfect for saving the day – except that this still “raises at least the possibility of an accidental launch of a nuclear weapon”.

All in all, I think they’d be better off with a pointed stick and maybe a cartoon anvil. Possibly, under strict supervision, they can use the adult scissors. Or, here’s an idea, we could not blow each other up.

Now that, I like.