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‘Does it bother you not at all to bind ghosts?’ he asked at last. His thumb slid across the knuckles of her left hand, not quite touching the ring. ‘To enslave them? Not even spirits, but the souls of your own kind.’

‘Every ghost I’ve bound committed crimes that would see living men imprisoned or executed. You wouldn’t let a living man who tortured or murdered his family go free – why let him do such things in death?’

His lips twisted. ‘I know many torturers and murderers who walk free, and I suspect you do too. Even so, it still seems…cruel.’

Ah memories. This time last year I was still pumping out reviews every day, even during the festive season. Now I have the luxury of taking my time with my reading – too much time some of you might be thinking. Just the other week I was browsing in Kinokuniya and decided that I wanted to read a fantasy book written by a woman. Perhaps that strikes you as a strange prerequisite, but to my mind the success of Twilight and its ilk proves that there is a huge demand for fantasy literature among women, but the stereotype of the basement dwelling male fan persists. In many respects The Drowning City challenges those preconceptions of fantasy literature, a point I will return to below.

Isyllt Iskaldur is a secret agent from the kingdom of Selafai who travels openly as a necromancer to the occupied territory of Symir. Her mission is to undermine the expansionist Empire that rules the city. The Assari conquerors are resented by the native people of Symir as well as the unquiet dead and it seems all she will need to do is fund the efforts of the revolutionary movement that seeks to topple the occupiers and her task will be complete.

Complications, however, soon ensue. One of her party shortly after their arrival becomes troubled by the nature of their mission and is tempted to defect to the rebels. What’s more, there are schisms within the movement itself, with a group known as Dai Tranh favouring more extreme methods that threaten the lives of the occupiers as well as the native inhabitants of Symir. Then there is her abilities as a necromancer suddenly becoming highly in demand, as spirits are rising up out of anger at the occupation they died fighting to prevent and possessing the bodies of their descendents. Finally Isyllt encounters an imperial mage named Asheris, whom she suspects is himself a double-agent of some kind. In setting in motion the plot of her masters to cripple the Assari Empire, has Isyllt only succeeded in wiping out a city of innocents instead?

What I find fascinating about Downum‘s vision is her fusion of Sino-Arabian influences. The Assari broadly parallel the Ottoman Empire, whereas the culture of Symir is devoutly concerned with spirits and the revering of ancestors. Isyllt encounters a devouring spirit known as a ganghi, a concept similar to Chinese ‘hungry ghosts‘.

This is a welcome inversion on typical fantasy tropes founded on Anglo-European mythology and folktales. I have discussed often on this site the debt modern fantasy owes to Tolkien’s raiding of Saxon and Nordic myths. The Drowning City goes so far as to feature a climax familiar to fans of The Lord of the Rings. Of course the inversion of the X-Y axis of fantasy continues with the genders of these characters, most of whom are female as opposed to the stock standard sword-wielding male bruisers weighing down the shelves in your local store’s fantasy section with their overly detailed biceps.

If I had a complaint about The Drowning City it would be that the points of view of characters chop and change within chapters quite rapidly, with nary a telltale paragraph symbol. I suppose the crests and emblems of Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin have left me spoiled in that respect.

This remains a confident and fascinating mixture of storytelling and worldbuilding. The first book of Downum’s series The Necromancer Chronicles, I look forward to the continuing adventures of Isyllt. Betrayal, political intrigue, magic and fraught romance – Downum delivers it all.

The Drowning City by Amanda Downum

Under our present denomination of British subjects we can neither be received nor heard abroad: The custom of all courts is against us, and will be so, until, by an independence, we take rank with other nations.

There was a great moment in The Last Days of Newgate by Andrew Pepper when a moral philosopher complains that the city of Belfast used to be filled with people who ‘read Paine and Franklin as avidly as they did Knox and Calvin.’ This inspired me to hunt down Thomas Paine, as I had not read anything by him previously. His pamphlet on Common Sense defined in ideological terms the independent state of America. Its wording can be seen in everything from the idealistic dialogue of characters in Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing to the signs of Tea-Party protesters. Paine’s writing underpins the conceptual core of America and so means many different things to this nation of many races, religions and cultures.

Common Sense is a classic piece of Enlightenment rhetoric. Following the credo of rationalism above blind faith, Paine first outlines argumentation against the very idea of a king, or monarchy in order to lead into his critique of the British Empire. To this end he first focuses on our inherited understanding of a king, citing Biblical text regard the disjunct between the much-called for ‘King of the Jews’, and the dominion of God Almighty.

Following from his reading of the text, he argues that any self-appointed ruler acts against the authority of God. By claiming territory on Earth, that king rejects the role of God as creator of everything upon the Earth. Interestingly Paine does not treat of the Messiah, Christ Jesus, himself. He also alludes to the practice in ‘Popish countries’, to forbid the reading of the Bible for fear of encouraging, in his view, anti-monarchist thought.

It follows on from this that America, as a much larger continent, is beyond the ability of Europe to rule. Firstly, he argues, accepting British rule exposes the Americas to whatever conflicts should occur between the closely seated neighbouring European regimes. Secondly Americans have no recourse to their ruler, the British king, whose legitimacy as a ruler Paine questions. There is an apt assessment of monarchs introduced, that in taking the throne a king is immediately raised above all other people, yet when called upon to rule, the king is expected to have some knowledge, or experience of the issues that affect his subjects.

Finally though, and here Paine’s rhetoric gives way to facts and figures, America is simply too big to be dominated by an island separated from it by an entire ocean. The continent has the means to be almost entirely self-sufficient. Whatever imports are required can easily be afforded by sale of its natural resources. Paine even introduces in later editions of the original pamphlet a table illustrating a cost analysis of British rule.

It is this upfront assessment of the material benefits of American Independence that impresses the most. In fact my edition includes a shorter work by Paine, Agrarian Justice, which outlines his views on the creation of a national pension service. The business of civilization, in Paine’s view, is to care for the lives of citizens. He self-identifies as a pragmatic humanist, urging a violent break from Britain in order to facilitate a truly equitable state.

Of course even he admits that while the cause may be just, citizens of such a future America might slide back into the oppressive behaviours of their one-time rulers. At every stage of Paine’s argument there remains an essential questioning. It is this aspect of Common Sense that I find most appealing, as it acts as a check on those who would take the blood and fire revolutionary rhetoric to justify present-day acts of terrorism against elected US officials.

Paine himself of course received little of the post-humous acclaim he unquestioningly has today while he was still alive. The double-edge sword of his rational argumentation made him quite unpopular among the newly emerging American upper class. This is a great shame, as Common Sense is far too practical in its view of political duplicity to be written off as another basket-case utopia.

A classic Enlightenment text, as relevant today as when it was first read.

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