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Making revolution is not a garden party, part 1 April 27, 2013

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, meta, reviews.
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My modern history teacher in the final year of high school had a habit of repeating the same anecdotes and little spiels over and over again. He said them so many times that I can remember them word for word. One of his favourites, repeated often in the two courses we did on twentieth-century Asia and decolonisation, went like this:

‘How do you make REVOLUTION? It’s not an easy thing to do. Do you just walk down the street shouting “CITIZENS OF MANUKA, LEAVE YOUR LATTES AND JOIN THE REVOLUTION!”? Of course not. Making revolution is difficult. As Mao once said, “a revolution is not a garden party”.’

I was reminded of this tedious little spiel recently, because I’ve been reading a lot of epic fantasy novels set in times of social upheaval and change. This in itself is unsurprising. Epic fantasy tends to deal with power struggles, changes in political leadership and dynastic politics, and the effects these things have on society at large. But these big subjects are often difficult to write well, and so I thought it would be interesting to look at a couple of series I’ve been reading through this particular lens. This post is the first in what I intend to be a two-part series; the second should be ready in the next few days.

Juliet E. McKenna’s Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution was one of those series that I’d been meaning to read for years. I trust epic fantasy in the hands of women much more readily than I do that written by men (if only for the fact that female authors will actually include women as point-of-view characters as a matter of course), and I liked that the premise of the series was not to unite an anarchic, fragmented and violent society under the rule of the One True King, but rather to do away with rule by the nobility altogether. I liked the idea of a revolution started by exiled scholars, merchants and artisans, since I find epic fantasy’s general aversion to the urban middle class profoundly irritating. I found the general premise of Lescar – a country of antagonistic, exploitative dukedoms overrun with mercenary bands only nominally under the control of different dukes – to be believable and interesting.

And then I actually read the first couple of books, and the whole thing fell apart.

I’m sad to say that the series just doesn’t work, or at least it doesn’t work for me. The problem is partly one of characterisation (I find all the characters clichéd collections of tropes rather than engaging human beings), but really one of believability. The problem is that the whole revolution is too easy.

Firstly, look. If the problem in your country is that it’s overrun by mercenary warbands bleeding the people dry while the nobility turns a blind eye and pays the mercenaries to plunder neighbouring territories, those warbands are not going to simply turn around and start following the orders of an impoverished gang of exiles simply because that’s the morally right thing to do. Even with the incentive of prospective plunder to be gained if the dukes are deposed, why would the mercenaries dismantle a system that has served them well in the past?

Secondly, why are all the nobles so stupid? None of them believe the rumours that a bunch of exiles are about to invade at the head of a coalition of mercenaries, and even after one territory is overrun and its duke killed, they still think they have nothing to worry about. This means that at the end of the second book, more than half of the dukes and their families have been killed or driven out of their homelands and the rebels control most of the country.

Thirdly, why have none of the principle characters from the rebel party died over the course of the revolution? None of them are ordinary foot soldiers – they’re all key figures in the conspiracy with vital frontline roles to play. Realistically, some of them should have died by this point.

Finally, magic in this world is a clumsy deus ex machina, and I actually see no need for it. The whole culture would work just as well without it. At present it seems to serve two purposes: it allows the conspirators to communicate across vast distances instantaneously (which, if this ability was missing, would actually make for some interesting tension and real hardship during their revolutionary struggle), and it gives the revolutionaries the edge in battles where they are outnumbered. Both of these strike me as quite lazy. One of my favourite series of books in the world, Sophia McDougall’s Romanitas trilogy, is also set in a world where the entire political and social order is being overturned. At the heart of the novel are two siblings who are escaped slaves. They each have supernatural abilities. None of their primary antagonists do. It works there, because the siblings are utterly without power. The entire world is hostile to them, they are being hunted by an extremely technologically advanced empire, and they are viewed as non-people by the legal system. Without their powers, it would be an extremely one-sided and short-lived fight. But magic in McKenna’s world does not restore some semblance of balance. Instead, it tips the scales too far in the rebels’ favour. When your enemies are vastly outnumbered by superior fighters, when they’re stupid and unable to adapt, when you’re virtually impossible to kill, you don’t actually need magic on your side.

So, overall, I’ve found the Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution to be a massive disappointment. Of course, I should reiterate that I’ve only read the first two books, and things might pick up as the series continue, but at this point, I can’t cheer for the revolutionaries because they have it way too easy.

My next review will be of revolution done right in epic fantasy.

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Comments»

1. Emma - August 8, 2013

I’m impressed you got through two of those books. I got through maybe a chapter or two and found the characters to be utter stereotypes, as you mentioned. Hope you are still planning to write the post about revolution done right! I’m currently reading Cold Steel by Kate Elliott, which is doing a good job with it.

2. dolorosa12 - August 14, 2013

Well, I stuck with it because I found the premise intriguing, but the execution was so execrable that I finally couldn’t bear to buy any more of the books. I do want to see how it ends, but I’m only going to borrow them from the library.

Kate Elliott is generally wonderful. All of her books are so thoughtful and realistic. Her characters behave like real people, and her revolutions make sense. That was one reason why McKenna was such a disappointment – Kate Elliott recommended her at one point!

I will write the second post at some point, but it will have to wait a while, as I’m trying to finish my PhD (that is also why it took me so long to reply to you, about which I am sorry).


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