book-reviews

Under One Banner

by Graydon Saunders

Rating: ★★

The first half of this book was a goddamn nightmare, a never-ending procession of disjointed, difficult and pointless discussions, serving mostly as an extended disproof that 'they' is always sufficient as a gender-neutral singular pronoun. I had previously thought that the disconnected style of Saunders' dialogue was conscious, an attempt to convey the communication style of a group which also reads each other's minds. It turns out I was wrong, Saunders just thinks all communication happens like this, with people never needing or bothering to explain what they meant by their sudden interjection of a strange phrase referring to a tangent to the current topic. While certainly annoying, some of this could be forgiven if these mysterious conversations were important to the story, but they aren't, because Saunders has no interest in writing a real story.

The injured and delicate Eugenia arrives on the scene having blown herself and her classmates up by trying to do the wrong sort of magic after studying something Team Amazing have produced. She can't do magic any more, and while it would be possible to fix her entirely, doing so isn't legal because it might change her mind. They fix her physically instead (I discern this only from later in the book, because the discussion itself is not at all clear about what they have decided to do), and she gets a job trying to describe how Team Amazing do things so other people might replicate it properly without blowing themselves up.

This is a horrific way to torture someone, because nothing anyone in the book ever says about magical engineering is clear, it's always describing abstract things vaguely inbetween long spells of being impressed with yourself. There are long, long periods of Saunders introducing Eugenia to things that were created in previous books and having her be amazed or cry or something, which frankly comes off as a bit masturbatory. There are lots of conversations where it is difficult to discern what the topic even is, but it eventually becomes clear that Eugenia is a strawman pacifist, and is really here to be converted to the view that Team Amazing et al. are right about everything.

Eventually even the author seems to get tired of this, and we go out into the desert for training and get involved in a surprise 'conflict'. Remember The March North, where the Commonweal fought a dangerous and unknown foe in strange terrain, and we got to watch them deal with the pressure and also reveal their own strengths? Imagine that, except without any of that pesky peril or danger or even any set-backs at all. Oh, and Eugenia happily takes command of the battery and leads it perfectly and slaughters twenty-thousand people, because she read a book earlier that told her that was the way to do things. The battle scenes are at least clearly and purposefully written, leading me to wonder if Saunders' real skill lies in writing after-action reports for tabletop campaigns.

Yadda yadda. Grue dies suddenly, unleashing a cool magical weapon which is in fact described such that you can understand it, but we can't have a character like Grue, who struggled with the Commonweal, just disappear without first absolving it of all responsibility for her being sad. So they retcon her cool weapon out of reality, and we have an awkward undeath scene, involving more weird discussion where it's not really clear what if anything anyone's deciding to do. The fact that they should have a judge there for this is mentioned but then ignored, for no good reason, mostly just highlighting that it doesn't matter what a consistent interpretation of Commonweal practice would suggest should be done.

Talking of which, Eugenia is permitted to pass the Shape of Peace because, uh, they're sorry they can't fix her properly. She is then given a special magic bracelet by Team Amazing that means she can do more magic than she ever could have normally, as a reward for overcoming her ideals and agreeing that they're right about everything.

The writing is pretty much as painful as always. Saunders somehow manages to include in here multiple of the exact same errors made in previous books in the series -- not just the grammatical errors, but things like the from/to calling sequence in the artillery banner addresses getting mixed up. I don't understand how you can make that same, very obvious, cockup in two different manuscripts, and have neither you nor your copyeditor notice. It seems almost intentional. At times I was left paranoid, wondering if Saunders was actually addressing me directly, deliberately referencing irritants I raised in previous reviews.

All in all, annoying. I'm not usually one to use 'indulgent' as a criticism, but if it's appropriate anywhere it is here. Little to no plot development, no conflict, plenty of characters being impressed by stuff other characters have done, or worshipping at the feet of the society the author is imagining, all written in a style that punishes you for not being inside Saunders' head.