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The Siege of Burning Grass

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3.5 rounded up. This is the first book I've read by Mohamed, although I've been intrigued by her work for several years. Her prose is absolutely gorgeous, and I think perfectly suited for this narrative that relies as much on character and philosophy as it does on plot. I did not find the ending very convincing, but the journey to get there was rewarding enough.

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Mohamed in her afterword talks about the difficulty of second world fiction, worlds which are after Earth (or Earth themselves) which sometimes present as fantasy. The Siege Of Burning Grass only really reveals its hand at the very end, it is a story of near endless conflict between two warring states, one of which seems technologically superior (not least in that they have flying cities). Magic is never mentioned, but the technological level reached in the actual warfare doesn't seem to be that high, our protagonist has had a leg amputated for medical science, and is being treated by a mad scientist via the means of pharmacological wasps. All of which is the say The Siege Of Burning Grass is chock full of lovely details, but surprisingly abstract when it comes to its bigger picture.

Out protagonist Alefret, the leader of the pacifist movement of Varkal has been captured, imprisoned and tortured by the state he is offered a deal. For his freedom, and more importantly, to end the conflict, they want to smuggle him across enemy lines to make contact with the oppositions underground anti-war movement, to enable them to bring down their own monarchy, government and end the war (in a way that would be beneficial to Varkal). There is a lovely moral dilemma backed into this issue, Alefret want the fighting to end, but to what extent will he involve himself in the conflict to stop it. It becomes more problematic when he agrees and is paired up with the brutishly simplistic Qhudur to get there. The picaresque portion of the book tests the positions of both characters philosophically, not least the amount of pain Alefret is constantly in. Again there is lovely detail about how the war is being run - the Varkal's using pteredons for airpower, versus the opposition's flying drones.

Its a solid read but there is a tension in the book between the allegorical aspect of the book about all conflict, and the specifics of this conflict, not least when the origins of the world is uncovered. Some of the choices made to leave it as an open parallel to earthly conflicts pushed against the specifics, and its final act never really takes a side as to whether a pacifist should employ violence to prevent greater violence, and the scenario it ends up with cannot help try to answer that question only for a low technology world with flying cities. Thought provoking and interesting, particularly on the PR battles of modern warfare.

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The Siege of Burning Grass by Premee Mohamed

I would like to thank Jess from Solaris for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Publisher - Solaris

Published - Out Now

Price - £18.99 hardback £7.99 Kindle eBook

The Empires of Varkal and Med’ariz have always been at war.

Alefret, the founder of Varkal’s pacifist resistance, was bombed and maimed by his own government, locked up in a secret prison and tortured by a ‘visionary’ scientist. But now they’re offering him a chance of freedom.

Ordered to infiltrate one of Med’ariz’s flying cities, obeying the bloodthirsty zealot Qhudur, he must find fellow anti-war activists in the enemy’s population and provoke them into an uprising against their rulers.

He should refuse to serve the warmongers, but what if he could end this pointless war once and for all? Is that worth compromising his own morals and the principles of his fellow resistance members?

War is an ongoing theme in Science Fiction and Fantasy but often one where it’s a device for action, glory and resolving a storyline. Moments of heroism fighting the hordes, saving the world and sometimes using amazing weapons. It feeds art of our soul which raises questions about us. But there are traditions too exploring the power of peace. In Premee Mohamed’s powerful The Siege of Burning Grass we have a story that gives war no glory; we see it for the pointless endgame it always is and we see it through the eyes of a remarkable character who has sworn never to fight. One of the most thoughtful fantasy tales on war I’ve read.

Alefret lives in the Varkal Empire an immense land hungry country forever at war and constantly watching its citizens. Alefret though is now a prisoner for being part of a pacifist group known as the Pact. Refusing to take part in the latest war against the equally powerful (perhaps even more) Med’ariz. he is being tortured and left in a prison likely to be executed at any moment. However, the Varkal military have a desperate plan to end the war they can’t win and this involves getting Alefret into a Med’ariz city alongside the fanatical soldier Qhudur. It’s a journey that gives Alefret a new perspective on war from those fighting on the front lines and a dilemma as to can any action be required that will not break his principles?

This is a fascinating story that challenges our traditional war tales in our genres. A tale that reminds me more of stories from a post WW2 period where writers like Le Carre and Greene highlighted in their own genres the banality, transactional nature and overall pointless cruelty of conflict decided simply because it must be fought. Mohamed timely challenges in many ways the standard ways we think still of war stories in fiction and reminds us to delve a little deeper into what really may be going on.

At the heart of this is our lead character Alefret. If I said Alefret is 7 feet tall, hunchbacked very strong and has a face people avoid looking at that gives you an idea of him. But if I said he is also a schoolteacher in his village; incredibly bright and eloquent and one of the key leaders of the pacifist group then suddenly your view may change. Mohamed lets us into Alefret’s thoughts via the third person narration. We see a man still trying to make sense of a cruel and mad world even from his imprisonment. He is being tortured for information and bizarrely also receiving amazing medical treatment to regrow a leg he lost in a bombing. A prize prisoner and yet also hated for doing something people cannot understand - not fighting - especially with his strength and power. Alefret is a more cerebral person; fond of myths and working out what they say about the world, loves wordplay and yet has the dilemma of does he die in prison or take a chance to end a war peacefully? He’s not going to be the type of hero to use the mega weapons or bring about an army to his command he is something refreshingly new.

We are used in wars for a glorious quest with adventures to achieve a goal and here again Mohamed gives us something different. While this is very much the last gasp chance to end the war it’s more a sneaky desperate final attack. To mirror Alefret we get his guard Qhudur and it’s a fascinating dynamic as these two are in some ways similar. From nearby parts of the empire, both share a love of stories and world games but Qhudur is very much the man who believes in the war and the good cause they fight for and he loves the violence far more than many of the soldiers we go on to meet. He hates Alefret for his choices and reminds him of it constantly. While Alefret is about deciding a course of action Qhudur is all about reacting and often with wild and intense violence. Alefret may be the only person capable of stopping him but his decision not to fight puts him in a quandary.

The plot takes the duo into the battlefields and I loved how Mohamed shows no glory. Alefret is troubled to find the armies are now down to their youngest fighters; that supplies are running out; even at his prison knives are now used for executions to save on bullets. The more senior commanders all know it’s lost but go through the motions of fighting as to stop a war would be madness. There will so no good guys. The Varkal empire is shown to be greedy to conquer, spies on its own citizens and yet their opponents the Markel have a secret police; special protections for their own leaders and some disturbing thoughts in the purity of the race. Frustatingly both have amazing technology - The Varkal use insects as technology from lighters, tanks to incredible medical supplies. The Med’ariz are capable of vast cities with bountiful supplies and both sides think the other is inhuman. All these years fighting and never considering what the other options could be.

In the final stages of the book Alefret and Qhudur are involved with the resistance of the Med’Ariz and we see a battle for ideas. Some are drawn to Qhudur’s love for action to get a result. Others are seeking just glory, power or profit from war and tension mounts - will they be found out, betrayed and can Alefret stop further bloodshed? Can violence ever not be the way to win? Things build and get more desperate in an excellent finale that we can’t guess the outcome until the final pages.

The Seige of Burning Grass is an eloquent but brutal look at war’s futility. A timely reminder that there is little glory in it and how peace is felt a worst outcome for the most spurious of reasons. It asks questions of the world and the reader and that is a sign of the best stories and cements Mohamed as one of the genre’s most interesting authors. Strongly recommended!

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Alefret is a prisoner of his own country, a pacifist in a time of war, a victim of his own country’s bombs and torturers. Reluctantly he agrees to infiltrate the enemy’s last remaining floating city with one of his guards/torturers, to try and persuade them to surrender or call for a ceasefire. There’s much to think about in this novel, war and peace, resistance, violence and its uses, the use of propaganda particularly in the dehumanisation of the enemy and much more.
There’s also science fiction elements, the floating city, strange weapons and tools that are part animal/part mechanical, including wasps that are used for injecting drugs.
It’s an interesting read and some parts I found really engrossing, in other sections the pacing is a bit slow.

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Mohamed’s The Siege of Burning Grass reminded me of Orwell’s 1984 and Dostoyevsky in the best ways. An unflinching examination of the rhetoric of war and what non-violence means in a world set on creating enemies to tear down. I will be haunted by Alefret and his wasps for a long time. On that note, I think this book made me like wasps a little bit?!

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"Bombing children. Bombing children as if to say, See what you have made us do. Fight without honour because you fought without honour. Forced our hands."

4.5 stars rounded up.

I swear, the more Premee Mohamed I read, the more I fall in love with her unique style of storytelling and writing.

Similar with authors like Cassandra Khaw and Vajra Chandrasekera, her style is definitely not for everyone. But if strange, almost otherworldly, SFF is your thing, you should definitely check this one out.

I'll admit though, it took me some time to get used to the prose because it read very clinical and detached in the beginning. It was hard to get to know the MC, Alefret, because the narrative feels very impersonal.

But once the story unfolded, it was easier to understand Alefret's fears and motivations through his exchanges with the other characters, particularly with Qhudur and Cera. This is the type of book that doesn't hold your hand, so you'll have to figure out each character's dilemmas and how the world functions on your own. It was quite a workout, let me tell you that.

But somehow, I ended up loving this mental exercise.

And slowly, but surely, the prose became more and more poetic as the story went on.

I loved how war and the role of pacifism is explored in this book. Several times over, Alefret's loyalty is questioned by various characters due to his pacifist stance.

I also loved how the author explores Alefret's large, disabled body as its own contentious and political topic. The fact that he even exists in a world that persecutes people with physical disabilities becomes a form of activism in itself. This quote below sums it up:

"How good it would be, just once, to be the monster everyone said he was—not forever, not for a lifetime. Just long enough to kill the corporal. But then could you return to humanity after that. Some would say yes. He was not sure."

I highlighted many quotes from the arc that I'll share here. Please note that they're subject to change in the published copy.

"Survival of the fittest. But fittest didn’t mean the most fit. It meant the one who fit best into the tortured shape the world made around them. And that was changing all the time, protean, many-faceted."

'[...] If the Meddon are human, how can they do what they do?”

“They are human,” Alefret said. “What are you talking about? The border wasn’t even drawn between our countries till a few hundred years ago. We all come from the same people.”'

"A child martyr could not consent to martyrdom. The youth of these soldiers pained him as if they were his own students, back in the village, out here sheltering under a carcass and waiting for old men to tell them to die."

"He could not imagine these teenagers fighting desperately, ferociously, for fear or anger or revenge or love of their country— for any reason, any emotion—when they were at the same time treated like assets in a business decision. Now we none of us are what we wanted to be, he imagined himself saying, solicitous, his teacher voice. A father to these children. But couldn’t you be anything else? Anything?"

"The idea slipped away again and again and finally he grasped it, and thought: They have butter here. And in Edvor they are running out of rats."

"War is practicing human sacrifice. You kill and you pray to the gods and you say: I have given you blood. Now you give me victory. The fact that they do not call it that, or admit to the prayer, does not make it any less true."

"...he could see that the loss had made her hard and hollow, and hard and hollow things broke easily under stress. He wondered how many times she had broken, during the war, and been alone, and rebuilt herself."

"The war was full of soldiers who had been forced to kill; and a small, unspoken contingent of those who wanted to kill. Who had only been waiting for the mass disaster of a war to unleash what they’d wished they could do all their lives."

Thank you to Solaris and NetGalley for this arc.

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Premee Mohamed is incredible. I'm steadily becoming convinced that everything she writes is a remarkable work of art. And (not "but") this is a dark, challenging work to get through. While The Butcher of the Forest was most like a fairy tale and was gorgeous and then got swiftly dark and briefly brutal but then gentled up, this brilliant reflection on war and resistance ends on a hopeful note but the path to get there is grindingly bleak.

If you're up for that, the world-building is phenomenal. I love the snippets of myth and old cultural tidbits from Alefret's village. The sheer astonishing weirdness of Varkal's biotech, perfectly ordinary to Varkallagi residents and thus not meriting much mention, is wonderful and is presented so seamlessly by the author that lizard guns seem, in the moment, to make perfect sense. War has such an awful lot of inertia. I loved how, in this exploration of how the systems that support and continue war function or cease to function--as well as how resistance movements function or cease to do so--along with the complex ethics of pacifism, nobody is idealized. Neither side (Varkal or Meddon) is Right, and no one, even among the resistance, is uncomplicated to sympathize with (well, maybe with the exception of Cera).

It's very, very good, but prepare yourself for Cormac McCarthy levels of bleak and dark. CW for an awful lot of things <spoiler>including psychological and physical torture, but no sexual violence</spoiler>.

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I love Premee Mohamed's work. Her prose and care are unparalleled. Those skills are represented here: The sentences in this novel about a pacifist sucked into a general's scheme in a war-torn fantasy land are, without exception, both clear and beautiful, and the author's care with the thorny, unpleasant ideas at play is resonant and thought-provoking.

Unfortunately, I do feel like Mohamed is best at the novella level, where both her prose and her ideas get to shine to their full potential. In a novel-length work, neither one of those things is really able to sustain the length of the project, in my opinion. The plot here, believe it or not, did not feel particularly meaty despite all the espionage and threats of death, and there were many moments where I wasn't really able to understand why Alefret went along with a plot that was so contrary to his principles at almost every point.

I would recommend this book for those who like secondary-world fantasy or ideas-driven fiction.

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"It's that 'fair' is a meaningless word if someone really wants to hurt you. There are no equal fights. Even if there were, you cannot tell by looking. So don't fight."

I absolutely adore what Premee has to say and how she chooses to say it. I would argue that this is the heaviest of the three books I've yet read from her, but incredibly worthwhile.

A man -born huge and strong, the kind of person people think is an indelicate, brutish monster on sight- who is actually a scholar and a pacifist is forced to go on a two-man mission with his enemy-- someone who looks like your neighbour or best friend but whose very bones sing with violence and war propaganda. Along the way he reflects often on the state of war and of stories, on the value of nonviolence, the lies we tell ourselves.

The world-building details are not the main focus, but build up an interesting setting in the background. From the floating city to the village bred lightspiders that can be depended on even in a blackout to the wasps with stings that can regrow human limbs. In many ways the two nations and their technologies (cold and mechanical vs alive and evolutionary) remind me of the Darwinists and Clankers in Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan series, and I think it works very well in this much more Adult novel.

I will be reflecting on the ideas presented here for a long while. Thank you.

"A very rapid sort of natural selection, like everything else in war. Survival of the fittest. But fittest didn't mean the most fit. It meant the one who fit best into the tortured shape the world made around them."

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As you would expect from Premee Mohamed, this is a carefully constructed secondary world, with a deeply tendentious story playing out inside its rules. Moral greyness and relativistic morality are always welcome sights in the secondary-world fantasy genre. Meditating on what makes a villain villainous, what makes it possible to fight and kill in service of peace (as George Carlin famously observed, "Fighting for peace is like fucking for virginity"), all the while still feeling Very Certain of one's own cause's Rightness. No one in one of Author Mohamed's worlds is Right. That being the reality of life on the Earth I like seeing it shown this way in very appealing fiction.

Bioengineering plays a very significant role in this fantasy world. (Including a use of wasps that absolutely *never* would've occurred to me!) I think it is best to leave the whats and hows of that fact alone, as there are surprises in store that hang on those hooks. If I am transparent about it, I would have been five-star warbling my fool head off had some of those fascinating facets found even greater, and sooner, uses in the story.

While I comprehend the metaphorical use of a flying city, I am deeply skeptical of any use of them because they use unrealistic tech to solve...nothing. There is no actual, practical benefit to a flying city that is not outweighed by real, unaddressed increases in the complexity of urban living. I guess the metaphorical "coolth" and visual appeal is just too much to resist, and the people with the flying city in this story definitely seem like the sort of culture that would develop one. Still...just no. Resist the pointed contrast of tech "coolth" to natural development and augmentation!

The absolute joy of the read is the very carefully natural debate between the competing moral certainties of pacifism and Security Über Alles from the alleged same side of the war. This is, to me, the best use of fiction: Don't give one side the monopoly on the good stuff or the bad stuff. Humankind doesn't, hasn't, and won't ever work like that. As you are telling this story, albeit set on a different world, to Humankind, follow our rules when it most counts. This being one of Author Mohamed's storytelling's strong points, I always enjoy her stories.

So, while not a masterpiece, this story of pacifism and its moral greyness, warmongering and its honest, if misguided, aims, and what men will do to WIN, is one fine read, indeed.

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Fantasy and science fiction novels often use an ongoing war as the central driving narrative force. In Premee Mohamed’s new book, The Siege of Burning Grass, two rival powers have been at war for years – the Varkal and the Med’ariz. Both forces are hungry for new territory and seem to have absorbed smaller countries into their domains and both claim that the other is the aggressor. But the people the Varkal seem to hate more than the enemy are the pacifists who have signed a pact committing them to non-agression.
One of these is a man called Alefret. Alefret is freakishly large and strong and so could be an effective fighter. But he has committed himself to the pacifist cause and when The Siege of Burning Grass opens has lost his leg in a bombing and is being held prisoner. Alefret is offered a deal in an attempt to end the war. He is to accompany un undercover soldier, Qhudur, infiltrate one of the floating cities of the enemy and connect with their own anti-war movement. He agrees even when he knows this will not be a peaceful mission.
Through the fraught relationship of Alefret and Qhudur and the encouters that they have both on the way to the city and after, Mohamed explores ideas of war, of resistance and of humanity. She does this in a strange world of biological tools (for example lizard cigarette lighters and wasps that deliver medicines through their stingers) and mismatched forces. There is an unnecessary throwaway explanation of the history of this world towards the end of the book which follows what can only be described as a very well worn trope.
The Siege of Burning Grass is more about the journey as it is about its ultimate destination. Mohamed uses her scenario to throw a light on the constant (and ongoing) warfare in Eastern Europe and other parts of the world. In particular, the entrenching of ideas and ideologies to both justify conflict and then keep it on foot. Mohamed asks a lot of relevant and difficult questions and does not provide any easy answers.

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Release March 12 2024

THE SIEGE OF BURNING GRASS is GRIMDARK Fantasy straight out of the starting gate. Let me repeat this: GRIMDARK. One needs a strong stomach, a still-beating heart, a wide-open ear to catch the subtle politicized references [I speak in broad terms of the undertones applying to Contemporary culture, not addressing specifics], a devotion to Fantasy, an appreciation of Pacifism, and an eye to recognizing finely-tuned characterizations. That said, we are immediately in the control of a supremely accomplished author with an incomparable imagination: Premee Mohammed.

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The Siege of Burning Grass is a science fiction novel from fascinating and incredibly prolific author Premee Mohamed. Mohamed's works tend to be weird in setting/concept even as they deal with serious themes and rarely go the way you expect: her lovecraftian Beneath the Rising trilogy for example was incredibly propulsive and twisty in some of the best and most infuriating ways. And the Siege of Burning Grass is similar in some ways: the story is incredibly weird in setting - featuring two warring Empires, one of which uses extremely weird biotechnology (wasps that sting you and administer drugs to you on a regular basis!) and one that uses regular tech from their floating cities - and twisty in plot and deals with some serious themes all at the same time as it follows pacifist Alefret as he's forced by one Empire to give his support to an infiltration mission to end the war.

The result is a pretty interesting piece of work, as it poses questions such as what is the value of pacifism in the middle of war and how much is that worth, at what price can one stick to one's values when the circumstances are always bad, and what is the cost of nationalism and what it drives people to do. There's also themes of class and how that affects who gets to protest, and well probably a bunch of other themes I'm forgetting or may have missed. It's a pretty deep novel but not one that ever drags or feels like some philosophy tract: like Mohamed's other works, it captivates you and doesn't let go until it hits its ending and is well worth your time.

Trigger Warnings: Thoughts of Suicidal Ideation and discussions of how soldiers are taught to commit suicide, as well as disability euthanasia are parts of this novel. None of it is gratuitous and all serves a purpose, but fair warning.

Plot Summary:
For years, Varkal has fought all of its neighbors and has sought to absorb them into its Empire. Now it wages a long conflict with its neighboring Empire of Med'ariz and its Meddon people, who use strange tech and have their own incredibly strong flying cities. It's a conflict that has been devastating to the Empire , with its peoples suffering and the battles seemingly going poorly, even as most of the Med'ariz cities have suffered as well.

Alefret looks like a man who would be the ideal soldier - huge in stature and very strong, he looks like a brutish monster on first appearance. But Alefret is in fact the leader of the Pact, Varkal's small nascent pacifist resistance, and for that pacifism Alefret found himself bombed and maimed by his own people and imprisoned and tortured in a military facility.

But after months of torture, a Varkal general comes to him with a proposal: Alefret will be allowed to "escape" with a brutal zealot soldier named Qhudur, with whom he will work to infiltrate Med'ariz's last floating city, the one containing its rulers. There, Alefret will make contact with the Med'Ariz pacifist movement, who has somehow heard about him and think of him as a hero, and he and Qhudur will use that movement as a weapon to end the war.

It's a plan that supposedly could end this horrifying conflict that has been going on for years and all it would cost is all of Alefret's principles. Can he or would he actually do it? And what will be the cost if he tried?

The Siege of Burning Grass is a novel that has a very weird science fiction setting, but at the same time has a very familiar-ish setup. Your background setting features the Varkal Empire relying on biological technology - their technology is frequently living creatures they've created; for example, Alefret is being healed (partially unwillingly) by a genetically engineered suite of wasps that regenerates his leg, provides him with painkillers, and other substances, and he has to keep the wasps alive in order to keep the treatment going. And then there's the Meddon people who may use conventionally non-living tech...but also have things like floating cities. And yet, when it all comes down to it, this is still the story of a conflict between two Empires that was incited for a reason no one really remembers anymore (and the two Empires explain the inciting incident very differently) and where at least one such Empire has always been making war or forcibly expanding its reach over the years, without regards to the wants of the people they conquer. It's a setup that has obvious meaning in our present world and in history.

Into this setting comes Alefret. Alefret is a man who looks monstrous and strong but instead wants peace and for the fighting to stop. He's a pacifist in the truest sense of the word, who doesn't approve of even learning self defense techniques (because one's instinct will then become to use those techniques) and whose methods for trying to incite peace feature protests and leaflets. Alefret and his group, the Pact, notably come from lower classes in Varkal, as they bear the brunt of Varkal's warmongering, but they have little impact seemingly on actually stopping the war before they are brutally repressed by the Varkal corrupt military government. And well, it's no surprise: Varkal is a country that dehumanizes its enemies as non-human (literally), includes a school that they imprison Alefret in that he can tell was once used to essentially torture children, and cares more for its military and biotech than they do its people. So of course they would hunt down and torture pacifists.

So when they come to Alefret with the task of infiltrating Meddon's last city and trying to use his stature as a pacifist to get a brutal essentially brainwashed assassin (although he's more of a true believer than anything else) into the city's stronghold with the help of the Meddon pacifists, his first inclination is to do nothing to help these people. How can he help them with violence when this is who they are, when all it does in his own mind is cause the cycle of violence to continue? And yet, how can he not help if it can end the war with such tremendous suffering! This becomes even more apparent as he sees the tolls the war is causing and then he sees how the Meddon people have blood on their own hands - the people in the City seem largely to be living peacefully and happily, the pacifists are largely rich kids who are ignored as completely pointless and harmless, and the Meddon people are hinted to euthanize babies who show signs of disabilities or abnormalities, an obviously monstrous practice that would never have allowed Alefret to be born!

And so we have a really strong story here as Alefret is confronted with tough choices and questions about the validity and practical use of his values. The book doesn't have easy answers - it arguably ends in a way that sort of gives Alefret a happy ending through circumstances that have nothing to do with him (itself an interesting idea) which might be a little too easy, but it doesn't pretend that makes his internal conflict easy. And while you may hell at Alefret for not revealing certain information earlier, you understand all of his actions. The result is a real strong short novel from Mohamed that is well worth your time and your thoughts.

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I didn't know what to expect from this book, but it was completely unexpected. Two countries are at war, and it is slowly consuming both countries. Alefret, our protagonist, is a devoted pacifist from one of the countries, being hounded by his leaders and countrymen as a traitor for not joining the war and fighting with everyone else. When Alefret is presented with a devil's bargain, one that might force him to compromise on his values but could end the terrible war, he embarks on a journey that will change him and the world around him. Qhudur, a fanatic soldier, is accompanying Alefret on his journey, further highlighting the contrast between pacifism and military dogma.

The book is incredibly well written. The pacing is committed and never lets go - the book is truly hard to put down, and the reader just wants to find out what happens around the corner. I also founder the characters very well articulated. Especially Alefret and Qhudur are realistic and deeply emotive. I loved how they developed and evolved over time, especially Alefret. Their internal dilemmas are thing that perhaps makes this book most brilliant. The tortured soul that is Alefret is the driving force behind the entire narrative, helping bring to life the main themes in the book.

All else being said, this book is a criticism of war (represented, essentially, by Qhudur). It is also, in my view, a criticism of pacifism (ie - Alefret). It's hard to read this book and not think of contemporary conflicts (Russia-Ukraine, Israel-Palestinians). The inevitability of violence as a driving force behind human conflict is devestatingly real in this book, and it's hard to ignore the fact the even in this narrative violence (and the threat of it), eventually, has a role to play in resolving the conflict. I came out of reading this book rather saddened - confronted by how chaotic and senseless conflict is, and what it does to participants' psyche.

I also loved the setting of this book - the worldbuilding is rich and innovative, making it easier to focus on the critique itself rather than being emotive about the context, which one inevitably does when reading about things that are more contemporary. It's a fantasy novel, with a bit of sci fi, and even that level of the book is super exciting.

I wasn't clear about Alefret's struggle and inability to decide what to do about Qhudur, leading to the inevitable crescendo of events at the end. I realise that this inability to decide is what is at the core of the character (and that's why I think this book also criticises pacifism and inaction). Perhaps it's my own bias and struggle to understand these types of mindsets - but it feels almost unreal to me. Maybe it's also the intrinsic desperation in the situation.

Finally, what I can't understand is the physical deformity of Alefret - it's such a strong theme in the book and in various events, but not sure how it really contributes to the narrative. It's not uninteresting - it's just not clear what it does to the broader war topic.

Highly recommended to anyone interested in war literature. Also folks who liked Abercrombie, in my view, would like this.

My thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with an early copy of this book in return for an honest review.

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I’ve been hearing a whole lot about Premee Mohamed for a few years now, and while I’ve tried a handful of her short stories—including one that finished among my favorites of the year in 2022—I had yet to read any of her longer work. The release of The Siege of the Burning Grass gave me an opportunity to change that. 

The Siege of the Burning Grass takes place on a world in which a society struggling to leverage bioengineering for technological breakthroughs is locked in a seemingly endless war with a technologically superior foe. The lead is an avowed pacifist, imprisoned for his refusal to lift a finger for the war effort. But when the military offers him freedom in exchange for a mission to join a pacifist movement in the enemy capital and agitate for surrender, his desire for freedom and the chance to spread his ideals war in his mind against his distrust of the military and commitment to stand apart from them. 

It’s a fascinating premise, and it’s supported by a descriptive prose style that doesn’t push the pace but rewards the reader with some gorgeous turns of phrase. Those two things alone are enough to make The Siege of the Burning Grass an interesting and rewarding read. But as the story develops, it becomes clear that very little time will be spent on the main phase of the mission—the actual coordination with pacifists across enemy lines. Instead, the core of the book is the relationship between the pacifist lead and his reflexively violent military handler. Nearly half the book is travel, and even when they reach their destination, the constant conflict between the two is just as much the focus as any external plot progression. 

And that relationship offers as much conflict as anybody could want, though it tends to fall along a few well-worn paths. There’s interpersonal conflict, as both figures detest the principles around which the other organizes his life. There’s internal conflict, as the lead constantly wonders whether he’s betraying his own cause by undergoing a mission that will surely be hijacked to some violent end. And there’s external conflict, with plenty of obstacles to overcome to even reach the enemy capital. 

But for all that’s happening, both inside and outside the lead’s mind, the plot tends to feel stagnant for long stretches, simply because both characters stubbornly cling to their preferred philosophies, and their bickering accomplishes little. For readers who enjoy that oil and water dynamic, The Siege of the Burning Grass is bound to be a winner. But for other readers, it’s just as likely to cause frustration, as the same conversations recur over and over, leading nowhere. Realistic? Absolutely. Fun? Perhaps not. 

And this philosophical clash is the true emotional core of the book. There are hints about a technological secret that keeps the enemy ahead, and the infiltration plot similarly promises big events to come. And those seeds come good as the story reaches its climax—make no mistake, things happen. But they happen quickly, just as the story comes to a close, and they never fully feel like they take center stage. There’s a plot here, but it takes a backseat to the interpersonal conflict. 

And while I wasn’t as compelled by that interpersonal conflict as I might’ve hoped, there were plenty of little flourishes that I especially enjoyed here. I already highlighted the prose, but the lyricism at times flows well into the dreamlike, which works beautifully to highlight a main character who isn’t always entirely lucid following a debilitating injury. And while the contrast between the two sides can make one feel like the obvious villain, the shocked responses to the lead’s appearance in the foreign capital indicate a pretty thorough eugenics program hiding beneath their technological superiority. Details like these add a strong note of realism and helps the novel resist simplistic interpretation. 

Overall, this is a book that is only going to wow a reader willing to buckle up for a slow-burn ideological conflict that goes around quite a few circles before finding any modicum of resolution. But even if the main plot takes a backseat to the interpersonal conflict, the lush prose and little details of worldbuilding and characterization gives Siege of the Burning Grass more than a few selling points. 

Recommended if you like: lyrical prose, slow-burn ideological conflict. 

Overall rating: 14 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.

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I have to say that reading a book about war - even imaginary war - in this day and age hits different, and the tone of the book, realistic as it is, doesn’t help. At the very beginning Alefret, the main character, sounded entirely hopeless, later transitioning into resigned and trapped and occasionally angry to the point of violence (testing his pacifist beliefs time and time again), and sad and doubtful and determined, with a little bit of hope and human connection at the end.
It was all a little hard to get into at first, but then it was hard to put down.

It was the end that brought the overall score down for me. I did not expect a neat or happy ending, but the plot twist about the two nations seemed obvious and failed to come across as an earth-shattering revelation, while the overall political implications for the future remained unclear. Which, I suppose, tracks in a way: a single individual has no way of knowing how and why things will turn out for something as big as the nation. There are some deeply philosophical and thought-provoking issues raised throughout the story, about the value of human life and the role and possible benefits of violence, big ideas and what they mean through the prism of mundanities (if anything), and these I don’t mind being left unanswered.

3,5 rounded up to 4 stars, with many thanks to Solaris/Rebellion and Netgalley for proof.

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A sort philosophical fantasy comte that I enjoyed but it's also thought provoking. Well plotted and the right read in this time.
Highly recommended.
Many thanks to the publisher for this ARC, all opinions are mine

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I was given an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review

The Siege of Burning Glass by Premee Mohamed is a grounded secondary world critique of war and propaganda. When Alefret’s home country is at war, he helps create the Pact, a group of pacifists who oppose the war. But when he’s captured and loses his leg, he’s forced to join zealot Qhudur in heading to the floating cities and, hopefully, find a way to end the war without compromising everything he stands for.

From the first page, the anger and frustration of war and conflict are clear as day on the page. Mohamed doesn’t hold any punches and explores the nuances of choosing non-violence and the power of propaganda, particularly in how two sides of a conflict utilize it. It applies to a lot of how modern warfare operates and you’re seeing things from the POV of someone who is forced into a conflict they vehemently oppose.

What I liked the most was the Voice, as I do with everything I’ve read by Premee Mohamed. I’m probably a broken record at this point, but I find her writing to be so engaging and a big part of that is how she utilizes Voice to create characters you want to stay with but are also flawed and make mistakes.

I would recommend this to readers looking for grounded secondary worlds that are low on the fantastical elements, fans of grounded military sci-fi and fantasy, and readers looking for novels exploring war, conflict, and propaganda that isn’t historical or contemporary fiction.

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During the recent Coode Street podcast interview with Premee Mohamed, she came up with an interesting phrase that seemed to capture what happens in her latest novel, The Siege of Burning Grass. She said that while juggling all the demands on her time, she often felt like one of her characters being “seduced into usefulness.” That’s exactly what happens to Alefret, the protagonist of the novel, when he, a giant of a man who is also a leader of a rigorously pacifist group and imprisoned during wartime, agrees to a strange assignment. He is to go behind enemy lines and find a way to end the war, and he is to be accompanied by his cut-throat torturer, Corporal Qhudur, who sees him as a monster.

The Siege of Burning Grass is a secondary world fantasy about the war between the Varkal and the Meddon. It’s a war fought mostly with bombs, pteranodons trained as bomber planes, guns and knives, and the Meddon have managed to turn their capitol city into a flying fortress. It’s a type of anti-war near-fable that kept reminding me of Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe, but it has its own mesmerizing and disquieting beauty.

In Alefret, Mohamed has created an amazing figure, a man who, we find out eventually, is over seven feet tall with a massive build that could enable him to kill his captor with his bare hands. Yet he is also a key signer of a document called the Pact, which commits him and its many followers to absolute non-violence. He is “seduced” into accepting this plan of infiltrating Meddon in the company of his torturer, even though he has little idea what it might entail or require him to do. He is focused entirely on the remote chance that it could bring an end to the war and save millions of lives, though quite likely, he thinks, at the cost of his own.

The story has a straightforward structure in five parts. There is a brilliant first section at the prison where Alefret is kept and tortured. Then there are sections on the painful march across open country by Alefret and Qhudur to get to the main military camp of Varkal; their arrival at that camp and preparation for carrying out the plan; their landing in the flying Meddon city and meeting the Meddon resistance; and the exciting implementation of the plan to end the war. The writing is precise and evocative throughout, as each setting and character Alefret meets comes to life.
The Siege of Burning Grass is a penetrating look at war, its victims and perpetrators, and the moral complexity of a physically powerful man whose principles compel him to contain the force he could so readily use to destroy his tormentors. This is not an easy book to read but one that is beautifully written and impossible to forget.

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DNF @ 16%

Sadly I think this book just wasn't for me. I struggled to connect with the main character and the writing style. There was some inconsistency early on too. Alefret says he won't assist the war in any way. Then he does. He says he won't refer to his 'minder' by his name, even in his head. Then he does. Neither of these really get a satisfying explanation either. It seemed like he was just changing his mind out of convenience to the author rather than for any story reason.

All of that said, I think the themes are very relevant and the style will appeal to lots of people. Especially people who enjoy literary fiction. This was simply a case of this book just not being what I was looking for.

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