THE RAJ AT WAR by Yasmin Khan

Yasmin Khan, The Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War. Vintage. London, 2016. (First published 2015.)

It hadn’t occurred to me until I heard of The Raj at War that India must have been central, and centrally important, to the Allies’ efforts in World War II — particularly once East Asia became an active theatre of war, with the Japanese attack on Hawaii in 1941 and the invasion of Burma in 1942. Indian regiments and Indian soldiers fought in all major theatres of war, and the fact that their contributions are not strongly remembered is a failure of historiography — almost as great a failure of historiography as the ones which meant I knew about the famines in the Soviet Ukraine in the 1920s and 1930s, and in Greece under Nazi occupation, but not about the Bengal famine in India during the war: a famine ignored by Churchill and made worse by the action and inaction of British politicians and civil servants.

The Raj at War tells the story of World War II from an Indian perspective. It’s a relatively short book to cover a continent’s experience of six years of war: 416 pages including the end matter and index. Khan is a careful writer, and a skilled one: her brevity feels efficient, rather than forced, and she moves from grand overview to focusing in on a particular person or detail with great smoothness. This is history writing at its best, and it’s no fault of Khan’s — indeed, it is much to her credit — that my strongest reaction is: but I want to know MORE!

Khan’s account ranges from the start of the war, when the British empire mobilised its Indian regiments, through the changes in Indian society that resulted from the Raj working to put India on a total war footing, to the challenges and changes to the Raj’s traditional class and race systems, the mass mobilisation of labour, the hardship and suffering undergone by many, and the widespread tension between an empire that said it was fighting for “freedom” and the Indian people to whom it refused to listen or engage with on the question of self-rule or independence — tension that would in the end lead to the British withdrawal from India.

This is not a book about Indian regiments on the battlefield, or indeed a book about battles at all. It is more an overview of the social developments that occurred and social conditions that prevailed in India as a consequence of India’s experience of being a British possession during WWII. And, in consequence, some of the political developments during that time.

Yasmin Khan has also written a book about the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 (The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan). With this in mind, it is easy to understand why at times her account of India’s war experience tends towards the teleological, particularly with respect to the changes in Indian nationalism and nationalist feeling during this time. The Raj at War does that thing of so many history books, where because something momentous did happen, the narrative defaults to the assumption that it was unavoidable that it would happen, which is a historiographical tendency that deeply annoys me.

That said, this is a really interesting and compelling piece of history-writing. I learned a great deal from it — so much that even to summarise the highlights could go on for pages. It’s fascinating, and I recommend it highly.

Women Who Love Women: November Dispatches From FF Romance

Gun Brooke, Arrival, and Carsen Taite, A More Perfect Union. Bold Strokes Books, 2017.

This month’s set of offerings (care of the Bold Strokes Books’ Netgalley page) are largely unobjectionably boring. We’re mostly short on the hilariously awful — as far as I can tell from first chapters, and barring Shea Godfrey’s laughably overdramatic opening to King of Thieves — and long on the deeply uninspired prose and tediously poor characterisation.

I’m cruel because I care. Let’s be fair: lesbian romance needs to up its game if it’s going to play for a bigger slice of the romance market pie. It’s not going to manage that without paying a lot more attention to the craft of catching a reader’s attention. Many readers aren’t short of other options.

I finished two novels out of the six (or was it eight? They blur together) that were available this month. One of those was Gun Brooke’s Arrival, the latest novel in a science fiction romance series. The other is Carsen Taite’s A More Perfect Union, a romance between a military officer involved in investigating misconduct at an officers’ training school in Washington, and a political fixer who has no reason to trust the military. Neither of these novels were actually good, mind you — though A More Perfect Union was tolerably okay — but they shared one feature that set them apart from their peers this month. Their characters were interesting and had personality. And not the kind of personality that makes you want to throw them off a cliff, either.

Gun Brooke’s Exodus series, of which Arrival is the latest instalment, is terrible science fiction. The worldbuilding is shoddy and inconsistent, the technology hasn’t been thought through, and the ongoing political situation is of the “throw a bunch of terrorist threats and racism analogies at the ceiling with no particular co-ordination and see what sticks”  sort. There’s a large, well-organised group of people who’ve left their homeworld on a colony ship because they don’t like the fact it’s being taken over by “changers” — mutants, basically, like the X-men, who seem to have been fighting the government for a while. But wait! There are also “good” changers, some of whom have hidden themselves aboard the Exodus vessel. Fortunately, it seems, because the bad changers have been trying to sabotage the project from the get-go.

The worldbuilding’s a hot mess, basically. And Arrival is also a hot mess structurally. But it has a pair of interesting characters.

Lieutenant Pamas Seclan was held captive by hostile changers for years before she escaped. She forged identity documents to get herself aboard the Exodus project, hoping to be able to reconnect with her adult children, Aniwyn and Pherry, at the end of the journey. (Her children were left to grow up under the debatable care of her abusive husband.) Aniwyn is now known as Spinner, and a Commander in the military. But Pamas’s hopes of peaceful reconciliation with her children are dashed when the new colony’s medical facilities are attacked with a virulently dangerous substance.

Darmiya Do Voy is a scientist and a member of the advance team that helped get the colony ready to receive colonists. Her homeworld was destroyed and she’s one of only a handful of survivors. She’s also one of Spinner’s best friends, which makes things awkward when she and Pamas immediately find themselves forging a connection. As the two of them negotiate Pamas’s complicated past and her relationship with her daughter, they find themselves at the forefront of attempts to defend the colony from the antagonistic changers.

The plot as a whole doesn’t make any sense, I should tell you. But the characters and their arc are entertaining and fun.

Meanwhile, Carsen Taite’s A More Perfect Union features Major Zoey Granger, an officer who blew the whistle on fraudulent dealings at her base. A chance meeting with political fixer Rook Daniels as Granger’s en route to testify before Congress results in a fast-growing attraction between the two women. When Granger’s reassigned to work at the Pentagon — and when her first job is investigating some young officers whose potential misdeeds are likely to have political complications — she and Daniels meet again professionally, and this professional relationship is somewhat antagonistic. Both of them are convinced that the other is holding back relevant information, and that the other doesn’t understand the real picture. They also find it difficult to trust each other on a personal, relationship level. When a Pentagon officer commits suicide, things get even more dangerous.

A More Perfect Union is tolerable romantic suspense, but it too is off-balance structurally and pacing-wise, and its characters, apart from its romantic leads, are thin and two-dimensional. But its romantic leads have characters, and their growth from miscommunication and mistrust towards mutuality is treated reasonably well. I wouldn’t say run out and read it now — but of Bold Strokes Books’ available romances this month, this one might well be the best.

Sleeps With Monsters: Djinn and Politics in an Interesting Debut

A new column over at Tor.com:

S.A. Chakraborty’s City of Brass is only the latest of this year’s excellent run of debut novels. It’s not my favourite—I have fairly specific tastes in what really hits my utter favourite spots. But it is a really solid fantasy novel with a vivid setting and an interesting set of protagonists.

2018: Books I Know About And Want To Read

These are the books I know about that are coming out next year that I want to read. (If you want to make me really happy? GIVE THEM TO MEEEEEEEEEEE. Ahem.)

 

Tor.com:

Everything. No, seriously. Have you seen their list? I’m not just saying this because I like the people who work for them – though there’s that, too. But with Elizabeth Bear’s STONE MAD, Kelly Robson’s GODS, MONSTERS, AND THE LUCKY PEACH, the next book by Ruthanna Emrys, a new Charlie Stross, J.Y. Yang’s THE DESCENT OF MONSTERS…

Look, people. They know the way to my heart, is what I’m saying.

 

Tor Books:

K. Arsenault Rivera’s THE PHOENIX EMPRESS; Robyn Bennis’s BY FIRE ABOVE; Tessa Gratton’s THE QUEENS OF INNIS LEAR; Mary Robinette Kowal’s THE CALCULATING STARS; Charles Stross’s DARK STATE; Ian McDonald’s LUNA: MOON RISING; CITY OF LIES by Sam Hawke; Lara Elena Donnelly’s ARMISTICE; Alex Bledsoe’s THE FAIRIES OF SADIEVILLE; Ilana C. Myer’s FIRE DANCE; John Scalzi’s HEAD ON.

 

Saga Press:

In no particular order: EUROPEAN TRAVEL FOR THE MONSTROUS GENTLEWOMAN by Theodora Goss; TRAIL OF LIGHTNING by Rebecca Roanhorse; RED WATERS RISING by Laura Anne Gilman; the next book by R.E. Stearns; the anthology ROBOTS VS. FAIRIES.

 

Angry Robot:

Micah Yongo’s LOST GODS looks interesting, but I’m definitely looking forward to BLOOD BINDS THE PACK by Alex Wells. And the next book by Tim Pratt!

 

Solaris:

REVENANT GUN by Yoon Ha Lee

 

DAW:

C.J. Cherryh’s EMERGENCE; HEROINE JOURNEY by Sarah Kuhn; Tanya Huff’s THE PRIVILEGE OF PEACE; Todd Lockwood’s THE SUMMER DRAGON; V.M. Escalada’s GIFT OF GRIFFINS; Cass Morris’s FROM UNSEEN FIRE.

 

Titan:

Okay, so it’s listed as Baen, but I have to believe Titan will grab the UK rights: David Drake’s THOUGH HELL SHOULD BAR THE WAY.

 

Gollancz:

Dhonielle Clayton’s THE BELLES; Alastair Reynolds’ ELYSIUM FIRE.

 

Harper Voyager:

Rebecca Kuang’s THE POPPY WAR; Nicky Drayden’s TEMPER; Becky Chambers’ RECORD OF A SPACEBORN FEW; Sarah Tarkoff’s SINLESS.

 

Orbit:

Tade Thompson’s ROSEWATER; Vivian Shaw’s DREADFUL COMPANY; Alex White’s A BIG SHIP AT THE EDGE OF THE UNIVERSE; Tyler Whitesides’ THE THOUSAND DEATHS OF ARDOR BENN; Melissa Caruso’s THE DEFIANT HEIR; Sam J. Miller’s BLACKFISH CITY; S.J. Morden’s ONE WAY; Elizabeth Moon’s INTO THE FIRE.

 

Ace:

Emma Newman’s BEFORE MARS; Django Wexler’s THE INFERNAL BATTALION; Genevieve Cogman’s THE LOST PLOT; S.M. Stirling’s BLACK CHAMBER. (He’s a mansplainer of the first degree on the internet, but it sounds like an interesting book.)

 

OTHER/INDEPENDENT:

I look forward to new books from Ursula Vernon writing as T. Kingfisher; Melissa Scott; K.J. Charles; C.E. Murphy; and with any luck, Heather Rose Jones.

 

…I haven’t even scratched the surface of possible YA to look forward to.

 

Okay, guys. What am I missing?

STARFIRE: SHADOW SUN SEVEN by Spencer Ellsworth

A new review over at Tor.com:

Ellsworth’s worldbuilding continues to grow ever more mind-bendingly batshit. That’s a compliment: giant spacewhales (space slugs? space centipedes?) whose flesh holds compressed oxygen and can be mined by a labour crew; untouched planets at the heart of Shir space; strange miracles and peculiar sentient beings—more space opera should include this level of weird. (It reminds me a little of Kameron Hurley, though without Hurley’s deep commitment to biological squickiness.)