Finding Hope in Books, Quick Thoughts

There’s a fifth book out in the Commonweal series by Graydon Saunders. Thus far, I’ve only posted here about The March North (an oversight on my part), but I love the whole series. I acknowledge freely that this series is not for everyone—it is not particularly accessible to a casual read—but there’s something to this series that I love, and which moves me in ways that I haven’t found regularly in books for quite a while.

A brief jaunt sideways: I have been a long-standing fan of the Ring of Fire series, started by Eric Flint with the book 1632. At this point it’s long, involved, and serpentine in its narrative’s twists and turns across concurrent books, but I have continued to read (almost) every new entry in the series. For a long time this series was comfort food. Even as I came to recognize the ways in which its idealized portrayal of a particularly inclusive and community-based set of American beliefs didn’t always match history (and didn’t include as many kinds of people as I’d like it to), the idealism that served the series as its foundation was heart-warming and reassuring. We’re better off working together, we’re better off including people and sharing our beliefs, we’re better off helping each other. We can disagree and still find ways to build together. We are stronger together than we are apart, and people are the heart of a nation; aristocracy, as a tiny and overly self-centered fraction of the populace, is at its best an ornamental contributor which can do the most good by advocating for and making space and prosperity for those less well-off than themselves.

It’s obvious why the series felt so comforting when I compare that message with the messages told by many of the other authors I was reading when I started the Ring of Fire series. 1632 was uplifting where other stories were dour, it embraced community where the others proclaimed lonely individualism as the only option, and it had people working together to make a better future where other stories showed people scrabbling against each other to come out on top. For all that I now see gaps in the stories, the Ring of Fire series felt like a salve. It was hopeful.

Which brings me back to the Commonweal series by Graydon Saunders.

This series caught me on so many levels.

On the surface, it’s refreshing to find books which frequently make use of gender neutral pronouns and don’t bother to gender most characters, while also making it clear that there are a variety of people and genders present rather than letting the reader always assume that “unmarked” means “male.” Similarly, it’s a pleasure to find books which so clearly include a wide variety of sexual preferences and orientations as utterly normal. Saunders does an excellent job of creating a setting in which people are welcomed and in which persecution along our own societies’ fracture lines feels alien and anathema.

But the philosophical and ethical determination underpinning the Commonweal is even more inspiring, and it’s all the better for the way in which Saunders bakes the Commonweal’s principles into the narrators’ assumptions and reasoning. Because all of the books are written in the first person (though the narrators vary), these principles are revealed gradually as people wrestle with moral and ethical quandaries or face the unthinkable.

How does one best further the survival of the Peace without exercising dominion or exalting anyone over anyone else? How can a society faced with extinction-level threats move itself into the future without sacrificing its ideals? And how can powerful people exist in such a society when their own capabilities may threaten that society?

How can societies which assume the equality of their members and acknowledge the personhood of outsiders persist in a dangerous world? And what does doing that look like… in a world wracked by a calamity of wizards and all the damage of millennia of magical war?

Which brings me to the setting itself, which continues to delight me. As someone who grew up on genre fiction and learned early on that sometimes settings just didn’t make sense (and that that was okay), it’s a treat to find a setting which digs deep into the reality of a world in which “a wizard did it” is both an explanation and a curse. Even better, it very seriously examines how a community of mostly not-wizards can survive when magic users have existed in a Hobbesian state of nature for long enough to twist much of the world into a fire-and-forget arsenal of “war by other means.”

It’s a deeply nerdy exploration.

And the answer is: that’s hard.

But it’s a story about a community that is dedicated to not only surviving, but to not compromising on their fundamental ethical ideals. And that feels good to me.

It matters that those ideals are ones which appeal to me, of course.

Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor is one of the few other books I’ve read recently that feel similar. Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower fits too. Not, in either case, because the writing is similar… but because the feeling of hope and perseverance despite obvious terrible circumstances is so powerful.

I’ll have to write more about this series again later, but I strongly recommend The Commonweal. If you’re good with trying military fiction, start with The March North. If you’d rather read about experimental transhuman wizard school, start with A Succession of Bad Days.

The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison

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The Goblin Emperor is strangely soothing. I don’t mean that it will make you feel good the entire way through, nor that nothing bad happens; I mean that it’s touching, fun, feels real, and somehow delivers good political intrigue in a grim situation without being dark or gloomy. Also, it hooked me and kept me excited despite being a tome.

I found this book on a Tor list recommending anti-grimdark stories, and it entirely delivers. Though shelved as YA, I think everyone would like it.

You know how sometimes you don’t want a story to end? You reach the finish and sit in that lingering need to see more, stuck on the idea that surely you could get just a little more story out of the book if you squeezed it just a bit harder. That was this book for me. I wanted more, I wanted to see what came next.

But Addison timed the climax and denouement for this book extremely well: she resolved the central issues, the emotional and political struggles that swirl through the heart of the story. Then, with that resolution still in hand, she ended things; no unecessary time is spent dwelling on anything extra or outside the story. Also, no matter how much I want to read more about the good things that happen to these characters, reading about only good things would probably bore me after a while.

And, unless they launched a whole new story, I’d feel sad when things strayed from that quiet feeling of calm stability.

I have more to say. I won’t give you explicit spoilers, but bear in mind that (if you’re strongly in the anti-spoiler camp) you may glean more from my comments than you wish to know. If you want to stop here you can. You should already know by now that I recommend this book.

Anyway, you spoiler-phobes have been warned.

There’s a lot of grimdark out there. There’s an excess of stories that revel in showing us how gritty and real they are by rubbing our noses in how poorly everyone treats each other. It takes a special kind of attention, a particular exercise of will, to write political intrigue—complete with assassinations, nefarious plotting, and villains aplenty—while still clinging to an underlying optimism, and giving everyone relatable humanity.

I rarely read characters I fall in love with in political intrigue novels, people who are quite simply good. They’re usually narrative fodder, intended to show the reader how characters die. So it is an absolute joy to find that The Goblin Emperor neither ignores the dangers of trusting those who desire your power, nor casts the central character as a manipulative super-human. Instead, The Goblin Emperor allows its main character to be manipulated and suffer for his naivety, learning from his mistakes without losing his honesty and decency or being crushed beneath the novel’s narrative heel—this story doesn’t assume that to be kind one must also be stupid. It allows him to be a good person trying to do the right thing in an impossible situation, even as he struggles with the growing weight of understandable paranoia and the inability to know what choices might be the ‘right’ ones.

It helps that The Goblin Emperor doesn’t bother with irredeemable villains; even the people I came to detest still had their own reasons behind their actions. Whether obviously selfish, well-intentioned, or something else, they always felt complexly human and real.

What I’m saying, really, is that this is a good book. Katherine Addison did a good job, and made a story that I strongly recommend. It’s emotionally real, it’s sometimes grim, but it’s also hopeful. And that matters.