Now into the third novel of the Battle Ground series, Churcher takes a different tack on the key players of the first two books.

The story of Bex Ellman, the middle-class heroine of the first book who also leads a band of conscripts into the rebellion and into hiding, alternates with that of Ketty Smith, the lead recruit who brutalizes the conscripts with ‘iron fists and steel toe caps’.  This raises the reader’s anxiety quotient even though the two are only in the same room once in the book (not a spoiler – that’s on the opening page).

They represent two different kinds of self-discipline – Bex’s is borne of a sincere desire to help others. Ketty derisively calls her Mummy Ellman, her own mother having abandoned her to an abusive and alcoholic father. And that’s the source of Ketty’s own discipline – keeping out of her father’s way until the day she could enlist in the military and be away from him for good. The fact that Ketty finds herself dependent on Colonel Bracken, another alcoholic, to whom she’s essentially an ADC adds some extra drama to the story.

As Ketty makes it to London to learn prisoner interrogation and to try to track down Bex and those who escaped with her, Bex and her friends try to keep hidden and make their way to the Opposition in Exile in Scotland. Both are trapped in similar ways. Ketty is bound to Colonel Bracken, must keep him out of trouble, and advance her own career at the same time. It’s a weird juxtaposition and with each chapter, we find ourselves deeper in their respective plights.

Darkest Hour

At the same time, Bex finds herself, oddly, at the mercy of those trying to help her. The Opposition In Exile (OIE) are keen to use her as the Face of the Resistance – a different kind of Front Line Doll. They also want to use her as the symbol of the war they’re conducting.

While I really don’t want to like Ketty, and I find her lack of pity problematic (something her colleague Conrad also notes, even though they’re ostensibly on the same side) to say the least, played against Bex’s increasing self-pity, she starts to take on a certain honor. I really like how the two women become doppelgängers for one another. Bex lacks Ketty’s self mastery whereas Ketty lacks most aspects of human compassion – or submerges them so effectively she may not actually have any at all

No, it’s not that she lacks compassion – she channels her compassion for Jackson (the comatose colleague from Camp Bishop who was shot in the chest by Bex’s friend Dan at the crux of the previous books) into revenge – and this is why in the grand scheme she’s unsuccessful. She needs to be able to see through Bex’s eyes but she can’t because it was Bex’s crew that incapacitated her only friend. Every bit of love she can muster is for Jackson, and her tragedy is that she can’t get out of that trap.

If you enjoyed the first two, you’re in for a different kind of treat with this one. It has more of the feel of a cinematic thriller with the hero and antihero fighting their own battles as they close in on each other.

Go over to Taller Books to get all three.

Note: I received a free advance copy of the book for this review.

 

The wreath of shining laurel lie
upon your shaggy head
bestowing power to play the lyre
to legions of the dead (From Hunter’s Elegy for Jerry Garcia)

The Grateful Dead had two main lyricists – John Perry Barlow (who passed away last year) mostly composed with Bob Weir. Robert Hunter who passed away yesterday at the age of 78 mostly composed with Jerry Garcia (1942-1995). The Days Between is one of the last few songs Hunter and Garcia wrote and was only performed (though quite regularly) in the last two years of Garcia’s life. It’s one of those dancing about architecture songs – I could talk about it or you could just listen…

Robert Hunter wrote straight up poetry as well as lyrics for the Dead (and others) and the words are worth an investment on their own…

There were days
and there were days
and there were days between
Summer flies and August dies
the world grows dark and mean
Comes the shimmer of the moon
on black infested trees
the singing man is at his song
the holy on their knees
the reckless are out wrecking
the timid plead their pleas
No one knows much more of this
than anyone can see anyone can see
There were days
and there were days
and there were days besides
when phantom ships with phantom sails
set to sea on phantom tides
Comes the lightning of the sun
on bright unfocused eyes
the blue of yet another day
a springtime wet with sighs
a hopeful candle lingers
in the land of lullabies
where headless horsemen vanish
with wild and lonely cries lonely cries

There were days
and there were days
and there were days I know
when all we ever wanted
was to learn and love and grow
Once we grew into our shoes
we told them where to go
walked halfway around the world
on promise of the glow
stood upon a mountain top
walked barefoot in the snow
gave the best we had to give
how much we’ll never know we’ll never know

There were days
and there were days
and there were days between
polished like a golden bowl
the finest ever seen
Hearts of Summer held in trust
still tender, young and green
left on shelves collecting dust
not knowing what they mean
valentines of flesh and blood
as soft as velveteen
hoping love would not forsake
the days that lie between lie between

I recently grabbed an e-book of Arthur C. Clarke‘s classic SF novel Childhood’s End on a whim. I remember being fascinated by the final sequence and it’s one that has stuck in my head since I was about 14.

The story holds up even if the prose doesn’t so well. The characters and their motivations are often flat. The rigid gender roles and racism are especially striking. While they may be reflective of the early 50s when it was written, they’re jarring now.

The plot is possibly well known. Aliens (‘Overlords’) come to Earth and stop humans in their tracks just as the space age begins. You won’t go into space, they’re told, but we’ll end the wars and the cycle of poverty. All of this in advance of an epochal change in humanity.

Weaving around the lives of four characters, Karellen, the Overlord supervisor; George and Jean Greggson, a couple whose children are the first exemplars of the change in question, and Jan Rodericks, a doctoral student of mixed heritage who manages to stow away on an Overlord ship to their home planet, the novel offers multiple perspectives on humanity’s last days and decades.

From the opening conflation of Earth’s first proposed journey to Mars with the arrival of the Overlords, we’re at every moment on the verge of something great that is subverted by the overarching history playing out.

As I came to the end, I was most struck by how Clarke’s story reflects how all of our predictions for business or security or war in any coming period are subverted by how reality plays out – think of our headlines about how we might support the world’s population or protect the wildlife we have left. What we thought the future would hold a decade ago or half a century ago bears no resemblance to the present we have.

Dutch edition of Childhood’s EndThe failures of the book also include an awful lot of exposition used to get across the science necessary to the plot, but these are overshadowed by the poignance that interweaves the lives of these characters. Kerallen tells us that his race has overseen the apotheosis of several other races at the behest of what he calls the Overmind, but that the Overlords will themselves never achieve the same. George experiences a double loss, that of his children to the the change that overcomes the last generation of humans and that of the possibilities with his own wife.

‘George looked down at her with sympathy, but nothing more. It was strange how much one could alter in so short a time. He was fond of her: she had borne his children and was part of his life. But of the love which a not clearly remembered person named George Greggson had once known towards a fading dream called Jean Morrel, how much remained?’

When Jan prepares to leave Earth, he sends his sister a letter in which he expresses how little holds him to the people he know, who will all be dead when he returns in 80 years. With this storyline, Clarke cleverly engineers both a witness to the Overlords position in the cosmos and a human narrator for the end of the story. If you’ve never read it, I don’t want to give anything away, and if you have read it, I urge a rereading.

In William Gibson’s novel The Peripheral, we meet a class of people, the klept, who have more money than they could ever use and play games with large swaths of humanity, often to the death. Gibson didn’t have to reach far for models; examples of the kleptocracy are all around us. The damage they do is not quite at the scale of Gibson’s klept only because Gibson imagines hundreds or thousands of timelines they can use for their playgrounds. (The chapter entitled Parliament of Birds (pdf) gives a good idea of what the klept are about.)
I’ve been considering writing about our modern klept for several weeks now and just when I think there’s nothing worse that could happen, I only have to consider the headlines for a moment. The most public members of the Klept, or maybe just their public representatives, are (not surprisingly) Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and (new member!) Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. When I thought I might be able to let this idea go, go on to writing something else, I saw this BBC headline: US and Brazil agree to Amazon development.
The world is quite literally on fire from Alaska to Siberia to Australia to, indeed, the Amazon. Instead of finding ways to protect these places for future generations, these so-called leaders are letting them burn so that the land can be exploited for oil and agribusiness. Bolsonaro’s very clever – if he doesn’t do anything about the fires, he solves one issue that he’s publicly declared a problem: the native populations of the Amazon basin. If they no longer have a forest in which to live, they’re no longer in need of any kind of protection. The other advantage I’ve read about is that he can then allow monoculture farming of in-demand commodities such as soybeans. (This becomes attractive given how Trump has buggered up the Chinese market for American soybeans. Trump’s trade war with China is one that probably could use some delving but it makes little sense to me as yet.)
And if neighboring Venezuela is anything to go by, there’s probably oil to be drilled as well. (Note that the vast majority of Brazil’s untapped oil holding is found in a region off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, rather far from Venezuela.
Man looking right forking dollars into his mouth while much smaller man has pennies to eat. Caption: When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men in a society, over the course of time they create for themselves a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it. Frederic Bastiat, French economist.

I know that equating fat and eating with greed is problematic, but we’re dealing with the oversized share of wealth consumed by the few at the expense of the many. I think this illustration addresses that pretty well.

And if we let Alaska burn, it may be easier for the oil companies to get into ANWAR (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – a protected area that contains some desirable oil reserves). At the moment there are fires throughout central Alaska, but not in the northeast corner where ANWAR is located. Difficult to access Siberian reserves are also going to be easier to get at once the place burns. (Yes, I’m being terribly reductive. The fact that these fires are starting because of record high temperatures caused is not lost on anyone concerned, though.)
This isn’t exactly the klept in a nutshell. But the high-stakes games being played with the lives of large numbers of inconveniently located people form the heart of what the ultra-rich and the world leaders who front for them are about (and have always been about).
The thing with Johnson and the mess that Parliament is trying to clean up is that Johnson’s a really minor member of the klept. Cursory web searches suggest that his net worth is about two million pounds. More than I’ll ever see in a personal bank account (unless things go really tits up, Zimbabwe style), but in the grand scheme of the very wealthy, not very much. So why is he pushing for no-deal Brexit so hard? The short answer is that the klept in the UK stand to lose a lot of money when the new EU Anti-Tax Avoidance Directive goes into effect next year. Pretty much all of the large-scale folks who have pushed Brexit stand to lose a lot of money. Johnson, it seems, is mostly just a front for those folks.
There’s more to address regarding the American klept, including folks like Mitch McConnell, but it’s going to have to wait.
The second novel in Rachel Churcher’s Battle Ground series is a real treat. The scenario is already familiar to readers of the first novel (also called Battle Ground), but now told from the perspective of Ketty, that book’s antagonist. The deal with Ketty in the first book is that we don’t know what makes her evil, we only have Bex’s perspective, and Bex is a relatively good teenager who looks after people. Ketty only looks out for number one. She, along with her colleague Jackson, applies ‘iron fists and steel toe caps’ to maintain her position as Lead Recruit at Camp Bishop, but we have little idea why.
False FlagI won’t be spoilery if you haven’t read Battle Ground, but, this book makes the most sense if you know the other side of the story. (Go over to Taller Books to get it.) Set in a near future England increasingly under martial law (and looking more and more like peri-Brexit Britain), young people are kidnapped into military service to be the government’s ‘front-line dolls’ in its fight against homegrown terrorists (also known as people who want to see Britain returned to democratic rule). The school friends who form the core of the first book’s story don’t take lightly to Ketty’s every-soldier-for-herself method of training and insist on helping one another.
Opening False Flag, we find ourselves looking at the arrival of Bex and her friends at Camp Bishop through Ketty’s eyes and quickly learn why she’s the one assigned to train up/torment new arrivals.
In contrast with the conscripted recruits we learn about in book one, Ketty joined up the first chance she got in order to get away from an alcoholic, abusive father. She learned her discipline the hard way, keeping out from under her father’s anger and violence. Whereas Bex had a loving but slightly difficult home life and friends to lean on for emotional support, Ketty knows that people are only stepping stones to get to the next level and depends only on herself as far as she can.
At its heart, Churcher shows us that Ketty is in many ways everything that Bex isn’t. Bex insists on caring for all those around her while Ketty seems to care only about herself.
The violence that Ketty and Jackson inflict on Bex and her friends is demonstrably sadistic, but we get more and more of the reasons why. Not that we necessarily find her any more likable, but that’s part of the fun.
While these books focus on young adults, the situations and the ways in which Churcher handles them are, by necessity, very grown up. This should appeal to all fans of dystopian fiction (or, as some folks are calling it: Current Events).
Note: I received a free advance copy of the book for this review.

More info at Taller Books.