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The Siege of Burning Grass
by Premee Mohamed

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted March 14, 2024

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Premee's new novel brought to mind an older book, one I should re-read, but the plot quickly diverged from that and went in another direction. At first I thought this was a type of secondary world fantasy, but if something said by a character toward the end is true, it is on another planet which had been settled hundreds, if not thousands of years earlier. If true, whether the original colonists were from Earth is up for debate. There had been many wars between various countries in the past, the current one between Varkal and Med'ariz having lasted at least two years. The main character is Alefret, formerly a teacher, now a prisoner in what had previously been a reformatory school. He was a pacifist, the organizer of a resistance movement, "The Pact of Those Who Would Not Fight at Lugos." He is not sure if any of his colleagues are also imprisoned, if they are also being interrogated, or if they have been killed. He is also not sure why he is being kept alive, and why his captors have implemented an experimental medical treatment designed to regrow his leg. He had been injured by a bomb dropped by his own country's military, although it wasn't clear if he had been its target, or simply collateral damage. Part of the treatment involves genetically altered wasps which periodically inject him with various chemicals.

Alefret is determined to stick to his principles, to not cooperate by revealing information about the loosely formed group of resisters. However, he is given the option of traveling to Med'ariz to contact a resistance movement there, in order to broker peace. His escort will be Corporal Qhudur, whom he doesnt' like, and doesn't trust to refrain from violence along the way. Even if he doesn't resort to violence himself, he is ready to sacrifice in order to stop the war. But would acceding to the army's directions compromise his values? As has been the case in our own history, as well as current conflicts, there is propaganda about the enemy, and debates over who encroached on the other's territory first. If that misinformation were to be believed, people of Med'ariz were not even people, but sub-human, an epithet occasionally directed toward Alefret. Some think him a genetic freak; he is seven feet, four inches tall, ugly, very heavy set, uncoordinated, even more so now that he has to use crutches. It is hard for many to believe someone that big and menacing could be opposed to violence. It is amazing he is able to keep up with Qhudur, and he even tries to run away from him at one time. Yet they finally make it to an advance army camp, where Alefret comes up with the plan that will get them into the Med'ariz capital. Which just happens to be a floating city. Military technologies mentioned may be mostly mechanical in nature, or more evidence of genetic engineering. For instance, flying craft called pteranadons. The discrepancies between the two nations' technologies make it hard to understand how and why the war has lasted as long as it has, but I guess part of that might be Varkal having more bodies to be used as cannon fodder.

Alefret and Qhudur make it into the city, and shortly after come into contact with the Med'ariz resistance. Or at least a group that presents itself as such. Alefret can't help but fear a trap. They apparently know of him and his movement, but even if they share his goals, will they cooperate with outsiders? It doesn't help that Qhudur frequently says and does things that threaten to antagonize the others. Alefret continually struggles with his conscience. Was he wrong to let the Varkal army talk him into the mission? Can he control his fear and hatred of Qhudur to see the mission to completion? What will he do if Qhudur resorts to violence, which he very much suspects he will. Could he justify using violence to restrain Qhudur? As a pacifist myself I can tell you that is something constantly on my mind. There is evil in the world, which will do what it will to enact its policies, whether that be war or subjugation of its own citizens. Can non-violence work, or is it naive self-deception, merely cowardice in disguise? Alefret has to make some hard decisions, some he will regret, some he couldn't avoid, some he is and will be proud of. I believe that in the end he decides peace was worth whatever he did. But can that peace be maintained?

There is something I have said several times before in other reviews, and on various online venues. I don't know if it was something I came up with, or if I read or heard it somewhere else; "Every war that has ever been fought has sown the seeds for the next one." Something Alefret says echoes that: "Each war creates another war. Revenge, theft, slighted honour, invented reasons… 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." Slower might be frustrating, but it is better than fast, if fast leads to an end we do not want. Full of conflicting emotions, and conflicting agendas, this book asks some hard questions, and perhaps presents some admirable answers. I recommended it whole-heartedly.


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Premee Mohamed

March 12, 2024

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