More Updates <sorry>

8 Apr

Hi, everyone

I was feeling slightly better today, which put me in a good mood for doing the edits for Cursed. The book is now just waiting (I hope) on a cover and then we can go live. If there are more edits … well, I’ll just have to do them. <grin>

I can also inform you that the audio version of The Broken Throne is going to go live on the 16th. I’ll put the link on my Facebook page when I can.

I’ve been stalled on The Right of the Line, thanks to radiotherapy. When we get back from holiday, I hope to get cracking and complete it by the end of the month.

I’ve also sketched out the plot for The Family Pride, which will be Akin’s story – set roughly five years after The Zero Blessing and The Family Shame. So far, the list of planned Zero books are: Kingdom of Ghosts (voyage to Hangchow), The King’s Man (story about a Kingsman <grin>), Revenge (perhaps – this might be better kept separate) and The Family Pride.

Thanks for your patience. It’s been a hard month.

Chris

Musings on the US College Admissions Scandal

5 Apr

I have actually been planning to write about the recent scandal – in which a number of wealthy (and quasi-famous, although I hadn’t heard of most of them) parents used various illegitimate methods to ensure their children went to college – for some time, but a combination of health issues and a desire to say something that hadn’t been said about the affair stayed my keyboard. Obviously, not everyone is going to agree with me here, but I think these are valid points. Feel free to comment below if you disagree.

I wasn’t particularly surprised by the affair, but I was angered. Any complex system – and college admissions is both insanely complex and largely opaque – can be gamed by people with money and connections. It isn’t that hard to get special treatment for your children, by having them declared dyslexic or autistic or something … a maddening fact to those of us who do have learning disabilities. In a sense, the admissions scandal is maddening to just about everyone in the civilised world. One could not have asked for a better demonstration of just how the system is rigged … and just how badly the system is rigged. If one has to have an elite composed of cheating bastards, it is too much to ask that they are competent cheating bastards?

There are, I feel, two aspects of the situation that have gone largely unmentioned. One of them is an issue that most people would regard as completely illegitimate, not without reason; the other has more to do with how the American educational establishment managed to get itself into this mess in the first place. It may be accurate, and I suspect that most people would agree with me, but it is not politically correct. Unfortunately, any system largely isolated from the outside world – and academia is often isolated from the rest of the US, let alone the rest of the world – is prone to allowing political correctness to override common sense. One cannot tackle a problem without a careful examination of the causes and a workable plan to deal with them. Allowing oneself to become deluded about the true cause ensures nothing, but failure and (eventual) humiliation.

First, the weakness of the elites.

There are two basic truths throughout human history. First, all societies larger than a mid-sized village will inevitably develop an elite. The combination of concentrated wealth, social complexity and the desire to pass an established position down to one’s children makes sure of it. Second, elites find it difficult to combine the need to keep the power within the family – so to speak – while bringing new blood into the system. As the elites grow stronger, they draw lines between themselves and the lower classes. It therefore becomes harder for talented commoners to marry into the elites, bringing with them new ideas and a solid grasp of the real world.

The first generation of aristocrats, therefore, might be very capable indeed – the first kings were pretty much lucky warlords – but later generations, not having experienced the struggle to establish themselves, are often less capable. A cursory study of monarchy within Britain, for example, reveals a series of competent and very capable kings being followed by incompetent and incapable successors. This happens, at least in part, because the later generations have a tendency to assume that their inheritance – their privilege, as modern-day academia would probably put it – is theirs by right. They didn’t have to earn it and, therefore, they rarely grasp that they have to maintain it. They are therefore unprepared for trouble, rarely capable of dealing with it … and, because they are disconnected from the real world, they have a nasty tendency to listen to people who tell them what they want to hear. This is at least partly why Hilary Clinton lost in 2016.

The ideal of America – the American Dream – is that a man can start poor and work his way up to the very top. In the past, it happened. Most of America’s best leaders and industrialists came from hardy, but poor stock. Democracy served as a way to ensure that the leaders did not lose contact with the commoners, as the leaders who did tended to lose power. This wasn’t a problem as long as the system worked, as long as newcomers could keep rising to the top. However, the concentration of wealth and power ensured that the elites became more isolated from the commoners. They lost touch.

What is truly maddening about the whole admissions affair is that the elites are not even following their own self-interests any longer. It is clearly in their interest for elite colleges (Yale, Harvard, etc) to work properly, ensuring that talented newcomers are inducted into the elites while also preparing the children of the elites to take their place amongst the powerful when their parents pass on. There has to be at least a pretence of fairness for the system to work. Everyone who gets into Harvard while clearly being unqualified, be they legacy or affirmative action admissions, clearly weakens the system. If a Harvard degree is worth less than a piece of toilet paper, what does that say about the students who go to Harvard?

The scandal has deeper repercussions than one might expect. One of the purposes of elite colleges, as I noted above, is to allow the well-born to mingle with talented commoners. (A good fictional example of such a system is the Slug Club from Harry Potter.) There is little pretence that a wealthy man’s son genuinely earned his place, although he might have done. Rubbing shoulders with the established aristocracy, however defined, is the point! But if talented commoners are being pushed out by elitist parents rigging the system, what does that say about them? Those parents are not even capable of preparing their children for the modern world. Indeed, they are actively harming the best interests of their social class.

In one sense, this is a reflection of a greater disease sweeping the West. There is a pronounced tendency to mistake a symbol for the thing itself. Thus, we are told that a treaty with Iran is a good idea even though it is a profoundly bad treaty … and Iran didn’t bother to keep it anyway. In academia (and writing, I admit) one can draw up all sorts of theories and imaginary worlds, without ever actually testing them. It’s easy for people to believe nonsense when they are never asked to actually prove their theories. Therefore, the ‘acceptable’ opinion is not the objectively right opinion, but the politically acceptable opinion. There is no room for questioning orthodoxy. This ensures that universities are increasingly held in contempt by outsiders, who comprise the vast majority of the American population. This is a recipe for trouble.

One can understand a ‘damn you, I’ve got mine’ attitude from the elites. It isn’t pleasant, but it has been a battlecry of the elites throughout history. But what is one to make of an elitist system that is literally eating itself?

The second aspect is more controversial, politically speaking. And, if you don’t mind, I’m going to start with an anecdote.

My primary schooling was a failure, even after I was (eventually) diagnosed with dyslexia. I spent four years at a hellish boarding school, where I was probably the most academically successful student during the school’s final years. And then I spent my last two years of secondary education at a mundane school, where I discovered – to my horror – that I was probably a C-student at best. There were so many gaps in my education, so many things I that hadn’t mastered, that I was dangerously behind my peers. I had hoped to take so many classes the hellhole hadn’t offered, only to be told I hadn’t made the grade. My career ambitions had been dashed long before I’d even formed them. I considered becoming a lawyer, for example, but by the time I discovered what the requirements actually were it was far too late to try to meet them. My hopes and dreams had been squashed before I had ever come to realise that I might have a future.

(There is another problem that is rarely acknowledged. If you remove a legal – i.e. arbitrary – barrier between any given group and a profession, it still takes some time for a newcomer to qualify to practice. There will be a lag between the members of the group being allowed to train and actually graduating. This inevitably irks those who want immediate results.)

In some ways, I was lucky. My parents were determined to help me. They never sneered at the idea of learning. And my near-complete social isolation probably kept me from embracing my peers and forgoing my education, although – as it was a bad school – it probably wouldn’t have made any difference to the final outcome. But it didn’t matter. I had so many gaps in my education, so many things I hadn’t been allowed to master before being rushed on to the next thing, that I looked doomed. I suppose I should be grateful they weren’t trying to teach me how to write <grin>.

Education – particularly STEM education – requires a solid grasp of the basics before moving on to advanced studied. Students must be able to read and write, to comprehend, contextualise and compose … it simply isn’t easy, as I found out, to catch up when you’ve been left behind. A gap in your knowledge from when you’re a child may ensure that you never catch up, particularly if your teacher is unaware of your lack and/or unwilling to help you. If you start your education in a poor school, you will be hampered for life.

Schools aren’t the only problem. If you grow up in a deprived inner city, for example, you will face social exclusion yourself if you try to study hard. Your peers will condemn you for trying to better yourself. (This is true even in racially-homogenous districts.) Your teachers will be poor, either because decent teachers shun such assignments or because they’re hampered by absurd rules handed down by political elitists who don’t know the reality on the ground or simply don’t care. It is hard to study, it is hard to better yourself, when you have no father (or mother), crime is rife, drugs are freely available … indeed, it is far easier to blame outside forces for your problems than look to yourselves. A student who grows up in such an environment is unlikely to match, academically speaking, someone who has both the drive and the resources to make use of it.

This creates a nasty little problem. A student from a deprived area is unlikely – by any objective measure – to make the grade to enter college. They simply haven’t had the advantages enjoyed by students from better areas, everything from better teachers to parents and peers who are actively encouraging. However, as many deprived students in the US are either black (or minority-majority), this looks like racism to subjective outsiders, to whom the absence of non-whites is prima facie evidence of racism. To ward off challenges, colleges therefore use affirmative action and lower the entry requirements for selected minority groups. This is, as I noted above, a belief that problems can be solved by making things look better. The fact that the real issue is still allowed to fester is neither here nor there.

Unsurprisingly, this causes resentment. Parents and students who think other students have an unfair advantage start muttering darkly – “if she only had to meet two-thirds of the requirements to get in, is she only two-thirds as good?” – and they get angry. Why should they not? The recent lawsuits challenging Harvard’s admissions of Asian-Americans are only the tip of the iceberg. Why should Asians have to jump through more hoops – most of which are painfully subjective – when they did nothing to deserve it? It gets more poisonous if the AA students genuinely are unprepared for college. They look bad, which – because they’re often the only lower-class students the elitist kids will meet – tends to taint elitist attitudes to their peers.

The admissions scandal intersects with this in several different ways. The more complex a system becomes, the easier it is for corrupt staff and students to ‘game’ it. It is relatively simple to boost a student’s prospective standing, particularly when one understands how the game is really played. Everything from learning disabilities to racial origin and sporting skills can be used … the student, as we have learned, doesn’t even have to play sports to qualify. In short, the complexity provides an unfair advantage to wealthier parents … one that, unlike making massive donations to the college, doesn’t even offer advantages to the entire institution. Why should people not be angry about this?

It is, in many ways, worse than I suggest above. People do not get angry, by and large, about a third (or whatever) of college slots going to legacy admissions. They go to college to meet legacy admissions. But the admissions scandal actually limits the number of places open to everyone else, whatever their colour or creed. Of course it does. If an AA slot can be claimed by someone who cannot, in any real sense of the word, be described as ‘deprived,’ what does this mean for someone who genuinely is deprived?

The core of the problem is two-fold. First, many students (and not just those from deprived areas) do not meet the objective academic requirements to enter higher education. In a just world, there would be no debate; if a student cannot pass the entrance exam, they shouldn’t be allowed to go to college. However, this contrasts with both the practical need to keep legacy admissions (and the donations they bring) and kowtow to the social justice zealots. There is no easy way to deal with the problem, thus enforcing a complex admissions system … and therefore encouraging both racial and class resentment.

But the deeper problem is that primary education (in both Britain and America) is largely unsuited to purpose. Kids who fall behind – and many of them do – rarely have a chance to catch up. Instead, they find themselves hopelessly unprepared, either for college/university or the real world. Fixing education would, I think, fix many of the problems facing us today. It would not, however, be an easy task. It would require a degree of long-term thinking that is alien to our modern-day elites. It would also require a cold, unemotional examination of the facts, one that discarded political correctness for objective correctness.

And that might be the hardest thing of all.

Review: The Killing Moon

4 Apr

The Killing Moon

-NK Jemsin

“We tell them stories about your kind, you know. ‘Be good, or a Gatherer will get you.’”

His face twisted in disgust. “That’s a perversion of everything we are.”

“You kill, priest. You do it for mercy and a whole host of other reasons that you claim are good, but at the heart of it you sneak into people’s homes in the dead of night and kill them in their sleep. This is why we think you strange—you do this and you see nothing wrong with it.”

NK Jemsin is one of the more prominent voices calling for ‘diversity in science-fiction and fantasy,’ a platform that has always struck me as dangerously misleading. I have no objection to diverse backgrounds or worlds that draw on non-western influences, although they do have their limits (as I have discussed in this series on ‘diverse’ books), but I care nothing for the race, gender, sexual orientation or culture of any given author. I judge an author solely by their work, not by any aspects of their life and times that are utterly irrelevant to me. Indeed, Jemsin deserves credit for putting her money where her mouth is – unlike most social commenters – and actually writing ‘diverse’ books herself.

And The Killing Moon, in many ways, showcases both the strengths and weaknesses of ‘diverse’ books.

On one hand, it cannot be denied that The Killing Moon takes place in a universe that is refreshingly different from many more mundane fantasy books. The background is largely – although not entirely – unique, drawing from Ancient Egypt and Hinduism rather than Medieval Europe or Native American. And yet, the characters remain understandable and human, even when they are often unsympathetic. But, on the other hand, the basic assumptions of this universe are so different from our own – and the bog-standard fantasy backgrounds we know and understand – that it can be hard, at first, to follow what is going on. The names of people and places – even the curious background mythology – are alien to most readers. The Killing Moon rewards a second reading, like most good fantasy novels, but it has problems getting its readers to want a second reading.

The plot is both surprisingly simple and remarkably complex. In the ancient city-state of Gujaareh, the night belongs to the Gatherers, priests of the dream-goddess who harvest the magic of the sleeping mind and use it to heal, soothe … and kill those judged corrupt. Their word is law, at least within their city. Foremost amongst them is Ehiru, who has recently accepted a new apprentice (Nijiri). Ehiru, however, has problems of his own. After a Gathering – a mission to grant a peaceful death – goes badly wrong, he finds himself questioning both his calling and his order’s innermost secrets.

In the meantime, Ambassador Sunandi – a representative from a nearby country – discovers that Gujaareh is plotting war. She attempts to warn her people, only to alert the hostile factions to her knowledge. Ehiru is told that she has been judged corrupt and ordered to grant her peace (i.e. kill her). Faced with her worst nightmare – a Gatherer in her bedroom – Sunandi manages to convince Ehiru that she has been wrongly named. Reluctantly, realising that there are worse problems at home, Ehiru and Nijiri flee with Sunandi to her homeland in hopes of discovering what they know. However, powerful forces are after them and Ehiru – deprived of the dream-stuff he would normally have harvested from Sunandi – is starting to lose his mind. He warns Nijiri, who has fallen in love with him, that the time may come for his apprentice to kill him. But the war begins before they can act.

Returning to Gujaareh, they discover that the leader of the plot is none other than the Prince himself – Ehiru’s brother. The Prince points out that the Gatherers are little more than drug lords, harvesting dream-stuff and distributing it to addicts. (One of the more interesting aspects of the story is that it is clear the Prince has a point.) Regardless, he has to be stopped; his researches into long-lost magics, and the reason Sunandi and most of her countrymen fear and hate the Gatherers, have offered him the chance to make himself an immortal king. Ehiru stops him, saving the city from one enemy only to hand it over to an invading and occupying army. Nijiri ‘gathers’ Ehiru, then goes back to the temple to begin his career as a full Gatherer.

In many ways, my brief summery has not done full justice to the plot. There are many neat aspects that only revealed themselves during the second reading, from the subtle (and somewhat inconsistent) message of ‘chosen’ – i.e. adopted – families being better than birth families to the obvious comparison between abuse of the dream-stuff and outright drug abuse (and how it can be used to control people). In hindsight, it is clear that ‘corruption’ is present well before it makes itself overt. Indeed, Jemsin definitely deserves a reward for creating a society that is loved by its members and yet regarded with entirely-justified fear and loathing by outsiders. I haven’t seen this done so well since SM Stirling created the Draka, with the added bonus that Ehiru – at least – is brave enough to take a stand against his society.

But then, the book also showcases the flaws in such an approach. Ehiru’s stance might have saved millions of lives, but it also opened the gates to allow Gujaareh to be occupied by its enemies. This is, of course, a repulsive (and distressingly common) historical problem. People born into an ‘evil’ society cannot simply give up without being destroyed by their society’s enemies, a problem Nelson Mandela understood and most modern-day SJBs do not. Why take your boot off someone’s neck, even if you understand that it is an unpleasant and wrong thing to do, when that person will destroy everything you hold dear? I don’t know if Jemsin did this intentionally, but it is definitely a point to ponder.

The characters themselves are a little weaker than one might expect. Ehiru himself is very much a ‘lawful good’ character, which allows him to be manipulated by both his brother and his superiors in the temple. He has no understanding of compromise and rails against corruption wherever he finds it, without realising that aims and intentions are sometimes more important than actions. It never crosses his mind that his superiors might be evil – or find themselves forced to make evil decisions – and he is rightly horrified when he discovers the truth, nearly having a breakdown (and he must have found death to be a relief). Nijiri, by contrast, comes across as a flatter character with a homoerotic crush on Ehiru. This becomes more than a little edgy at times, although nothing actually happens.

Sunandi, by contrast, is a curious choice for ambassador. Jemsin does an excellent job of making it clear that she’s a good character, although she shares the same fear and loathing that other outsiders feel towards the Gatherers and Gujaareh itself. (This is completely justified in-story, a curious choice on Jemsin’s part.) She is also brave and resolute when necessary, talking her way out of being assassinated by Ehiru – and yes, this would have been a political assassination – and doing everything in her power to resist the invasion. Jemsin hems and haws a little on Sunandi’s role in the counter-invasion, although no one would have blamed her for wanting to crush the beast in its lair.

And the Prince himself is an oddity. He is a devoted family man – in stark contrast to the father he shares with Ehiru – and has a very strong point, but he throws it away as he descends into madness. In a normal book, he’d be the hero. Instead, he is the darkest person in the story. His seeming decency only makes the truth worse.

There are, it should be noted, a series of curious aspects within the text. Jemsin does not, it seems, understand the role of an ambassador, an interesting oversight given that ambassadors were regarded as sacred in ancient times. It is hard to believe that any government, ancient or modern, would tolerate the legalised murder of an ambassador, or even accept that it might happen. (Carter effectively did tolerate it, leading to many of the problems facing the US today.) It’s also hard to believe that any halfway responsible host government would tolerate religious factions attacking diplomats – that is, bluntly put, an act of war. And Sunandi allows herself to be seduced by the Prince, which may have been intentional (it let her take a look at his chambers) but the text isn’t clear on this point.

The city also has a curious mixture of sexual freedom and repression. On one hand, both homosexual relationships and temple prostitution are treated as normal. No one appears scandalised by Nijiri having a crush on his teacher (although they should be, as Ehiru is Nijiri’s mentor). But, on the other, the locals seem to feel that their women should not work; this is treated as a sign of respect, but it should be obvious how this is also a sign of repression. It’s also worth nothing that the city is racially-diverse, but not particularly culturally­-diverse. No one makes an issue of skin colour within the book, a refreshing change, but aspects of the plot are driven by cultural clashes between the city’s locals and outsiders.

The text also highlights the problem with religious extremists. Both Ehiru and Nijiri are fanatics, by modern standards; they do things that Sunandi (rightly) finds appalling, because they feel they have divine sanction. In this universe, they may have be right; however, it doesn’t stop them (and their followers) from being regarded as monsters. You cannot argue with a fanatic because he knows he’s right. The text also illustrates the dangers in such an approach. Religious institutions are dangerous because their followers will refuse to question them, even when they are clearly in the wrong. Ehiru is a good man, but what happens when a religious nut is not a good man?

This raises yet another curious issue. At the end of the book, with Gujaareh under enemy occupation, Nijiri tells Sunandi that Gujaareh will not resist … if she and her customs are treated with respect. But why should they be treated with respect? Why should the civilised man respect barbarian customs? Respect is earned, not given. The deep-seated corruption within the temple – neatly foreshadowed by Jemsin right at the start – has rendered it institutionally guilty. A little more of ‘we will respect your right to burn widows if you respect our right to hang murderers’ would do wonders for our modern-day problems.

Overall, Jemsin deserves credit for creating a very different magic system that – by and large – hangs together very well. It is nowhere near as detailed as any of Brandon Sanderson’s creations – I thought I saw elements from Mistborn worked into the system – but it does manage to both look different and provide an understandable and well-foreshadowed ending to the story. In hindsight, both the real nature of the Prince’s plan and the resolution are clear to see. Given the challenge facing Jemsin, she rose to it very well.

She could not, however, avoid many of the weaknesses of ‘diverse’ books. She needed to explain her society to us, but that inevitably slowed down the plot; she needed to make her characters likable, which she did, yet she needed to keep reminding us that Ehiru and Nijiri may be good people, but they serve (by our standards) a monstrous society. Jemsin is a remarkable world-builder, but the sheer alienness of Gujaareh works both for and against the plot. There are aspects that should have been detailed, but were simply glossed over. The Killing Moon really should have been a trilogy. The plot was certainly big enough to spread over three books. (There is a sequel, but it isn’t a direct sequel.)

The Killing Moon has not won any major awards, which is something of a shame. It is – in my less than humble opinion – the greatest work Jemsin has produced. Indeed, unlike The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms or The Fifth Season, it is strikingly groundbreaking and should have been nominated for a Hugo. The world is different, but understandable; the characters are not-us, but understandable even though (some) of them would be regarded as villains or monsters in our society. Or even simply too alien to be accepted easily. The most understandable characters, from our point of view, are Sunandi and the Prince.

But, on the whole, The Killing Moon is definitely a excellent book that rewards its readers.

Who’s Side Are They On?

1 Apr

This is something of a ramble and I was very depressed when I came up with it, but there’s a serious point here. As always, disagreement is welcome.

It’s kind of scary where my mind will go if I let it. Case in point, I was reading a book to my son a couple of nights ago called Share. It’s one of those sweet little books that are supposed to teach older siblings that they should share everything they have with their younger siblings, even if the object in question is theirs. The poem-text includes gems that run like this:

I love my fluffy teddy, but Baby wants it too.

“Share, says Mummy. So I do.

“And now my teddy’s sticky – and covered over with glue.

The story goes on in similar vein. Big Sis shares her stuff with Baby, only to have it ruined; Big Sis shares everything else with Baby, only to make a mess; Big Sis discovers the joys of sharing life with a little brother. Sweet and charming, if you discount the string of Big Sis’s possessions that have been ruined and her newfound joy of making messes that Mummy has to clear up. Mummy, of course, takes this in her stride. <grin>.

What struck me as grossly unfair, while I was reading the book, was that Big Sis’s possessions were being ruined. None of the things that got damaged by Baby were easy to repair – even if they were replaced outright, they wouldn’t be the same. Mummy doesn’t seem to notice quite how unfair she’s being. On one hand, from her lofty maternal perch, she’s trying to get her children to play together; on the other, from Big Sis’s point of view, she’s sacrificing Big Sis’s possessions to Baby. It isn’t fair to Big Sis. Why should she be happy with it? And why doesn’t Mummy understand? Wasn’t she a little girl, once upon a time?

The average parent doesn’t really care about issues that seem so important to children, if only because – as adults – they have (hopefully) grown out of childish disputes long ago. To a child, fifty pence is a vast sum of money; to a parent, fifty pence won’t even buy a cup of tea. Parents think of themselves as separate from their children, untouched by their spats and petty disagreements. It’s quite possible for two boys, the worst of enemies by their standards, to discover that their parents are the best of friends and the kids are expected to play nicely together (and, when one of them is victimised by the other, the victim normally discovers that their parents see them as equally guilty). Such an approach might make sense for parents. It isn’t the end of the world if one boy knocks down another boy’s sandcastle. It can be rebuilt. But, to someone who is intensely focused on a sandcastle that took hours to make, it really does feel like the end of the world.

Indeed, we tend to mock parents who get too involved in childish issues – or try to live through their children. A father-figure cannot be a father-figure if he wants to be one of the boys, a point that too many fathers often forget. He must keep himself above their petty disputes if he wishes to be seen as a reasonable source of justice, rather than a grown man pretending he’s a child.

The point – which I will get to before you all start thinking I’ve gone insane – is that politicians have increasingly started to see themselves as paternal figures, who are above childish disputes. On the surface, that isn’t such a problem. We need people who can think beyond tribalism. But, at the same time, it can lead to all sorts of problems. A parent who earns minimum wage, for example, is still vastly richer than a child who only gets £5 a week in pocket money. It can be hard to understand how unpleasant it can be to lose £5 – or an even smaller sum – if one has far more money in one’s wallet and/or bank account. A politician who is surrounded by armed security, 24/7, is one who cannot understand what it is like to live on a crime-riddled estate. The politicians are secure. Their voters are not.

Kids sometimes ask themselves, in all honesty, which side their parents are actually on. Why aren’t my parents taking me seriously? Why do I have to play with that jerk? Why am I expected to share my toys when he breaks them? Why do I have to … it goes on and on, with no good answers (or at least no good answers a child can accept.) This is part and parcel of growing up. But, when it is applied to politics, it turns actively poisonous. Which side are they on indeed? A cynic – like me – might well answer “their side.”

Point is, parents don’t really get down with their children. They dispense justice (or dictates, depending which side you’re on) from high above. But this blinds them to the truths of any given situation, truths that any child knows to be true. To parents, the victim and the victimiser look identical; to children, the parents are either on their side or against them. A politician may believe that it is important to give criminals a fair chance to re-enter society, for example, but the average civilian feels otherwise. If we know someone is guilty, if we know someone is likely to reoffend … well, lock them up and throw away the key. The political elite may believe that it’s important to make a show of being impartial – which they do very well, as long as their interests are not threatened – but the commoners (and commoners is pretty much how the elites think of them) want people who put their interests first. A criminal’s rights are important, but they’re much less important than the rights of his victim.

As society fragments, thanks to identity politics, this causes all sorts of problems. For example, transgender bathroom rights seem like a good idea if you’re above the problems they bring in their wake. On paper, there is nothing wrong with letting people use the bathrooms they want to use. But, in this case, transgender rights conflict with the right of women to have sex-segregated bathrooms. One group’s rights clash directly with another group’s rights. This alienates women from transgenders … and both transgenders and women from the lofty politicians who have caused the problem in the first place. Instead of working out a reasonable compromise, two groups are at daggers drawn. This is, shall we say, a little unfortunate. It also raises a simple question. Why should one group be forced to compromise when the other – from the first group’s point of view – is the aggressor?

This is, in many ways, merely the tip of the iceberg. As I have noted before, controversial issues – from immigration and open borders to currency integration, trade treaties, and globalisation (and yes, transgender bathrooms) – may have brought benefits, but they also brought troubles … and the benefits and troubles were not spread equally. The people who benefited from free movement within the EU, for example, were not the ones who had to deal with the problems it brought in its wake. The political elite often did benefit – this is undeniable – and it made it harder for them to understand the concerns of those who didn’t. It’s easy to dismiss the wolf when you can’t even hear the approaching howl, let alone feel the teeth biting into your neck. The constant dismissal, mockery and even hatred for those who hadn’t benefitted only alienated them from the political elites.

What people want, at base, is politicians who are unambiguously on their side. Not shifty little weaklings who hem and haw whenever serious issues are raised, not indecisive fools who are afraid to choose a side for fear of losing voters they probably never had anyway, not layabouts who soak up money while doing as little as possible, but politicians who put their interests first. They want – they need – politicians who stand up for the country, who fight for their people … not politicians who sell the country to the highest bidder (and are sometimes too incompetent to manage even that). And if the current crop of political leaders are incapable of serving the interests of the voters, the voters will look elsewhere. Why should they not?

Back in 2017, Ta-Nehisi Coates published an article in which he called Donald Trump the ‘first white President.’ On the face of it, this is absurd. With the possible exception of Warren Harding, who was alleged to have ‘passed’ as white (this has apparently been disproved), forty-three out of Trump’s forty-four predecessors have been white. And yet, as strange as it seems, Coates had a point. Trump would not have been elected, were it not for the support of people who felt that they were being marginalised, discarded and ruthlessly mocked … people who wanted – who desperately needed – a political leader who was unambiguously on their side. The unfortunate result, as I noted earlier, of identity politics is that it encourages tribalism … and, inevitably, we end up with ‘straight white male’ being considered an identity. In that sense, Coates was right. Donald Trump was elected because be appealed to an identity that felt it had been sold out by traditional politicians.

Obviously, a lot of people will say that isn’t true. They may be right, but it doesn’t matter. People believe it to be true and perception, in politics, is more important than reality.

If you want an explanation for the current political crisis gripping America, Britain and Europe, look at how badly politicians have lost touch with the common man. Look at just how many problems have been caused by political elites forgetting what it is like to be at the bottom of the ladder. Look at them forgetting who they work for …

… And whose side they’re supposed to be on.

Updates (And Delays–Sorry)

24 Mar

Hi, everyone

I have really got to STOP talking about future plans – it always jinxes me. Five days into the radiotherapy treatment and I feel terrible. Headaches, nausea, tiredness, aches and pains in delicate places … I can’t wait for the treatment to be over. I’m having a weekend break, but I don’t feel any better even after a couple of days without treatment.

On the plus side, we managed a decent birthday lunch – my parents took the kids long enough for us to have a proper break. It isn’t quite the holiday I desperately need, but that will have to wait until the school holidays and a break in treatment long enough for us to actually go somewhere without needing to turn around and come back the day afterwards.

(And if you want to give me a late birthday gift, why not a review? <grin>)

Hopefully, I’ll be well enough to continue The Right of the Line tomorrow. If not … there will be delays. Sorry.

Chris

Review: The Poppy War

16 Mar

The Poppy War

-Rebecca F. Kuang

The push for more diverse writers (and identity politics in general) has had the unfortunate side-effect of convincing many readers, on both sides of the political aisle, that a number of writers were only published because of their gender, or the colour of their skin, or because of something that the vast majority of writers are unable or unwilling to leverage to their advantage. The fundamental unfairness of affirmative action makes it harder to accept that a book might not be your cup of tea, but others may feel differently. ‘Diverse’ writers therefore have to deal with the stigma of being ‘diverse,’ of being prejudged as having effectively cheated their way to publication. This is fundamentally – brutally – unfair, but it happens.

The Poppy War is an excellent demonstration of precisely why it is unfair.

When I read it for the first time, I was hooked. I slid into the story as easily as I slide down a ramp. When I finished, I decided that the author had jumped to the top of my A-List; I promptly started reading it again. On the second read, I noticed a handful of problems with the text, but the author’s writing skills were more than good enough to convince me to overlook them. In short, I really liked this book.

In an Empire that bears more than a passing resemblance to Imperial China, Rin – a young war orphan – sets out to escape her unwanted foster parents by taking and acing the empire-wide tests to find the best students in the empire. Winning a scholarship to Sinegard, the foremost military academy, she thinks she has it made … until she discovers that a brown-skinned peasant girl sticks out like a sore thumb amidst the grandees. Ill-prepared for the academy, facing bullies of both genders, she forces her way up the ladder … slowly uncovering hints of magic and power beyond her wildest imaginations. Eventually, she learns how to call on the gods themselves for power … at a hefty price.

Her studies are interrupted by war. The empire is being invaded by ‘Imperial Japan.’ She is pushed into defending the academy, then a city under siege; she discovers, too late, the truth behind her origins … and how she can use them to stop the war. Betrayed by her superiors, she unleashes a nightmare upon ‘Japan’, takes control of her army unit and sets out to avenge the betrayal …

It’s easy to draw comparisons between The Poppy War and The Girl King. They do have much in common, being based on Imperial China, but The Poppy King is a vastly superior piece of work. The author effortlessly evokes both the grandeur and squalor of China, taking us on a ride from the heartlands of empire to lands devastated by war. She makes no bones about the multiethnic dimensions of the empire, discussing races within the empire that had strange powers … some of which proved very dangerous. Her description of corruption within the empire, of racism and opium smuggling and how the warlords refused to work together, is a very accurate description of what happened to our China. The failure to unite and adapt to an outside foe eventually brought the whole system crashing down.

The Poppy War also has the advantage of a fundamentally different magic system than most books, one that is both rational enough to be understandable and yet manages to maintain a sense of wonder. Martial arts are not magic, the tutors say … except they are, under the right circumstances. (Shades of Iron Fist and countless other stories featuring oriental wisdom here.) Rin learns she can call on the gods, but the price for doing so can be very high. Her first real teacher is terrified of his power, with reason; her second accepts the price and pays it willingly. And, in the end, Rin herself makes the same decision.

As always, the core of a great book lies with its main character. And Rin is fundamentally likeable, right from the start. She works hard to get what she wants; she never gives up, even when pushed to ‘admit’ she cheated. (She points out, rather dryly, that if she cheated she somehow beat an anti-cheating system that was lauded as unbeatable.) She faces immense difficulties, from the standard bullies to the anger of the gods themselves, but overcomes them. Her character sharpens as she grows older, she loses some of her more likable points, but … she stays a great character. There is much for writers to learn from The Poppy War.

The book also managed to give life to a wide cast of other characters, from her first teacher (who appears, on the surface, to be a little crazy) to aristocratic students who have huge advantages over her. The author does manage to develop them, for better or worse: the school bully becomes a partner, then a friend; the queen bee is captured by the enemy and gang-raped … an experience that leaves her broken. And the author does not hesitate to show that each level has its own problems. The greatest student at the academy is introduced to us as a Marty Stu, but – when we meet him properly – it becomes clear that he’s just as insecure as everyone else.

It is rare, these days, for a ‘diverse’ book not to take a few pokes – deserved or not – at colonisation. The Poppy War largely avoids this by having the main enemy be an analogue of Imperial Japan, although it does make a snide comment about ‘westerners’ documenting the war rather than doing anything about it. (A common problem; the west has often been a day late and a dollar short when it comes to intervention.) One may quibble about the portrayal of the ‘Japanese’, from their ruthless dehumanisation of their foes to their willingness to carry out horrific experiments on their captives, but it is firmly rooted in reality. Imperial Japan could have – and did – give the Nazis lessons in committing atrocities.

The book also manages to illustrate the high cost of privilege without being too preachy about it. In theory, the empire-wide examinations are fair (and they are, as Rin manages to pass without being disqualified for being a peasant girl); in practice, kids raised amongst the nobility are trained in everything from classical literature to fighting from almost as soon as she can walk. She is hopelessly outmatched, at least at first. Worse, even when she does get to the academy, she finds that she is still at the bottom and she has to keep climbing the ladder. The system is designed to present an appearance of social mobility while, in reality, keeping things relatively static. This ensures that it is rare for new blood to reach the rarefied heights of power, weakening the empire and eventually ensuring its collapse. The people raised in the aristocracy simply don’t understand the conditions on the ground. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this in a book, but it is remarkably well done here.

If there is one major flaw in The Poppy War, it is that it reads a little condensed in places … the action skips forward midway through the book, something that may weaken elements of the storyline. (But, on the other hand, it doesn’t need to glide through class after class once the academy is firmly established.) There are other moments – the heroine makes a string of decisions that may be regarded as practical, but utterly heartless – that darken her character (she ends the book by effectively committing genocide); there’s also the odd question of precisely why no one recognised her origins, if her skin was that distinctive, although in such an era it’s possible that no one really knew what made her people stand out.

But … overall … The Poppy War is a very good book. I liked it.

You might like it too.

Review: The Girl King

16 Mar

The Girl King

-Mimi Yu

I first heard of The Girl King through a discussion on ‘diverse’ books, which – unfortunately – prejudiced me against it from the start. Like most fantasy and SF readers, I have nothing against books set in foreign lands or drawing influence from non-westerners or mindsets (come on, how many of us actually live in Middle Earth?) but I have a great deal against authors being touted as anything other than authors. When an author is described as being a great ‘person of colour’ author rather than a great fantasy author, I get worried. It suggests, very strongly, that the author has nothing else going for them.

Fortunately, The Girl King has quite a lot going for it.

In an empire that is very clearly based on Imperial China, complete with a diverse collection of nationalities brought unwillingly under the empire’s banner, there are two princesses, the only children of the reigning emperor. The older girl, Lu, is a classic action princess, learning to fight with swords as she awaits her nomination as her father’s heir. Min, her sister, is a far tamer character, a timid girl who expects to be married off as soon as she becomes a woman. Their lives are suddenly disrupted when their father names Set, their male cousin, his heir instead and commands Lu to marry him.

Determined not to take this lying down, Lu challenges Set to a contest to determine who should be the rightful heir. The challenge – a hunt – ends badly when Set’s men try to kill Lu, then – adding insult to injury – blame her for the death of her father. Lu flees into the countryside, meeting up with Nokhai, the last surviving wolf shapeshifter. They form an uneasy partnership – her family has done his people a great deal of harm – and go in search of an army to take back the throne. They eventually reach a lost city and kingdom, with a strange magic of its own that promises aid, but their enemies catch up with them before they can ready themselves for the fight.

In the meantime, Min finds herself married to Set, caught in a network of court intrigue and experiencing gruesome visions that are the first sign of her magic coming to life. She hopes to be a good wife and empress, but instead becomes a tool of Set and his allies as they start to hunt down Lu. Her powers growing out of control, Min descends into madness and – in the aftermath of the first desperate battle, where her husband is killed – declares herself the empress. The stage is now set for a struggle between the two sisters, as only one of them can rule …

In some ways, The Girl King is not as diverse as its fans argue. On one hand, it is a very Asian-themed story indeed; on the other, the plotline could easily have been set in something akin to medieval Europe without losing anything of its overall shape. The runaway princess trying to regain her throne, taken from her unjustly by evil patriarchal men, is far from uncommon. This works in its favour, to be fair; the names may be foreign, but the characters are very human and the stakes are understandable. There’s nothing incomprehensible or outrageous – a ‘heroic’ character acting in a manner we don’t consider heroic – in The Girl King.

The worldbuilding is a curious mix, to be honest. There’s a very definite flavour of Imperial China, but we don’t learn enough about the magic – and how it fits into the world – to grasp how this world actually works. We are left to fill in the blanks far too often, rather than being shown the key to understanding the system. (The attack on the hidden city makes no sense, as far as I can tell.) There’s also a sense that the world is small, rather than immensely huge. Either Lu travels a vast distance at an astonishing pace, which is possible, or the empire is nowhere near as large as the book claims. And the book pulls no punches about how devastating wars can be on the commoner populations, where they are caught in the middle or abused by victorious soldiers. Lu learns, firsthand, that her father has unleashed a nightmare on his people.

The characters of the book are a curious mix. Lu is very much the standard rebellious princess, although – and this is a point in its favour – this is deconstructed as often as it is feted. Lu thinks tactically, not strategically; she doesn’t seem to realise, for example, that she isn’t guaranteed her father’s throne, nor that she needs to make alliances with the older men surrounding her father to convince them that she’s the best possible person for the job. This would not have been easy, certainly not in a world where men and women (particularly royal women) were kept separate, but she doesn’t even appear to try. She’s also prone to being very self-centred; again, something that blows up in her face more than once. Her storyline is about her learning how the world really works, just as much as it is about her trying to survive and raise an army of her own.

Min, by contrast, is – on the surface – placid, timid and compliant. Unlike Lu, who wants to climb out of society’s box, Min wants to embrace her future role as a wife and mother. Her personal tragedy is that she cannot be a mother, at least; she is kicked out of the box because she is barren (the price for her magic). As she strives to develop her magic, caught between Set – the only person who was ever really kind to her – and her stepmother, perhaps it is no surprise that she starts to descend into madness. She doesn’t want much, but she cannot have what she wants. It’s a curious reminder that not everyone wants to rule the world (or at least the empire.) And while she spends most of the book as a helpless pawn, she does – eventually – come into her own.

The two main male characters in the book – Set and Nokhai – are both dragged down by the past, both held back by humiliations caused, directly or indirectly, by Lu. Their resentment keeps them from moving forward, at least at first. And yet, they’re not bad people. Set is actually kind to Min, while Nokhai grows to accept that Lu is growing up. Set is also quite clever – and certainly better prepared for the game of thrones than Lu – in that he takes advantage of his position to secure himself, which is more than Lu managed to do. (Lu’s stepmother points this out to her, quite bluntly.)

But the weakness here lies in how the characters relate to one another. I can easily believe that Lu and Set hated each other, even before he took ‘her’ place as her father’s heir. There’s a lot of bad blood there, so much that I wonder why her father expected Lu to marry Set without protest. On the other hand, Lu is – to some extent – dismissive of her sister and it’s hard to see them as having any real relationship. (Min does plan to try to get Lu ‘pardoned’ for the crime she didn’t commit, which is something more sisterly than her elder sister did for her.) I did expect Lu and Min to have a major argument, something to account for their split, well before the main plot actually started. And the constant shift in relationships between Lu and Nokhai started to grate after a while.

The wider plot is also hampered by relatively little of it making sense, at least from what we are given. One of the princesses is a bastard, but which one? What are Set and his allies, including the stepmother, trying to achieve? What role is played by outsiders from distant lands? It isn’t clear. Hopefully, these issues will be cleared up in the sequel.

I found The Girl King to be slow going at first, partly because the author took too much time for character development. This caused an odd stop-start effect where Lu’s side of the plot advanced rapidly, while Min and Nokhai’s sections seemed to be moving slower. On the other hand, once both sides started to advance … they advanced. It is also remarkably clean, particularly given the stakes: rape is mentioned and threatened, but not shown; Min is not expected to consummate her marriage to Set immediately, which is something of a relief as she only just started puberty.

And yet, the book came to an end before any of these matters were resolved … (roll on the sequel).

The book also hammers in the ‘royal privilege’ mantra more than once, although it does take care to deconstruct it. Lu (and Min) were astonishingly privileged, by the standards of the time, yet they were also birds in a gilded cage. Their mistakes and character failings stem from their upbringing just as much as their intellects; when they are taken from their cage, they don’t know the rules and they don’t know how to act. Lu is very lucky to survive Set’s bid to kill her, let alone remain alive long enough to start planning revenge. And when she appears to be nothing more than a helpless peasant … well, she discovers that their lives are not comfortable or safe. Thankfully, unlike some of the other books I’ve read – Sorcerer to the Crown, The Collapsing EmpireThe Girl King is well aware of their flaws and works to show their disadvantages as well as their advantages. Lu, at least, is well on the way towards becoming a heroine when the story ends.

Overall, The Girl King is a good fantasy novel. Not great, not on the scale of Lord of the Rings or Mistborn, but well worth a read.

And, as a first novel, it shows lots of promise to come.