Sunday book review: The Necromancer Chronicles, by Amanda Downum

Originally posted here.
The Necromancer Chronicles introduces us to a richly realized world of magic and intrigue. It is a world haunted by spirits and the restless dead, where mages bind spells and spirits alike in gemstones. Our guide through this world is ‭ ‬Issylt Iskaldur, a spy and a necromancer. She serves the throne of Selafai, though she came there as a refugee in her childhood.
The first book, The Drowning City, takes Issylt far from her home, to the canal-washed city of Symir. Built by the Assari Empire when they conquered Sivahra 150 years ago, Symir is still a city sharply divided between rebels and collaborators. Issylt is accompanied by the mercenary partners Adam and Xinai Lin, forming a collection of refugees and strays collected by spymaster Kirilos Orfion. They have one task: Free Sivahra. Assar looks North with covetous eyes, and Selafai would see them warring elsewhere.
Issylt makes contact with Zhirin Laii, apprentice mage. Her lover is the leader of the rebel Jade Tigers, whom Issylt is there to contact. Meanwhile, Xinai alone of the three has come home, and her old family ties lead her towards the terroristic Dai Tranh. As the rival rebels plot against each other, Issylt and Zhirin dance the steps of intrigue with Assari Fire mage Asheris Al Seth and his seeming ally Siddir Bashari. They have their own secrets and their own loyalties as well, not all of them obvious. As each faction jockeys for power, spirits of nature and the dead alike are called into service. The book explores themes of nationalism and loyalty, and what costs are acceptable to preserve family or tradition.

The second book,‭ ‬City of Bones,‭ ‬follows three years later.‭ ‬Issylt ‭ ‬has returned to the Selafain capital of Erishal.‭ ‬Her mentor, Kirilos ,‭ ‬has‭ ‬lost the King’s favor,‭ ‬and as his protégé she has not been called upon recently either.‭ ‬Everything changes when she is called in by the‭ ‬vigiles.‭ They‬ have found a royal signet belonging to the late queen on the body of a murdered prostitute.‭ ‬Despite being ordered off the case,‭ ‬she digs deeper into the matter on her own. ‭ ‬ She finds evidence that the murder and grave robbing are only a small part of a scheme against the Crown she is sworn to serve and the city itself. ‭ ‬Her investigations lead her from the sewers below the city to the royal palace,‭ ‬where she allies herself with Savedra Severos,‭ ‬mistress of the Crown Prince.‭ ‬Savedra is a scion of one of the city’s foremost houses and the previous ruling dynasty.‭ As such, she was ‬raised from the cradle to intrigue and politics.‭ ‬Barred from the marriage that they both desire by the fact that she is transgender and unable to bear the Prince an heir,‭ ‬Savedra uses her skills and contacts to defend him and his unhappy foreign wife from assassins and enemies, always afraid that they may come from‭ ‬her own family’s grudges,‭ ‬old and new.‭
Issylt and Savedra must find a balance between trust,‎ ‏duty,‭ ‬love,‭ ‬and loyalty as obligations pile up‭ ‬as fast as bodies,‭ ‬riot and plague sweep the city,‭ ‬and amidst it all vampires and demons stalk the great and the small alike through the chaos.‭ ‬This book follows themes of family,‭ ‬love,‭ ‬and duty.‭ ‬Characters must balance the ties of family with those of romance,‭ ‬choose between duties and lovers,‭ ‬and come to terms with the aftermath of both deception and honesty with those they love.

The Kingdoms of Dust takes us to the Empire of Assar, where the Ghost Wind blows out of the Sea of Glass. Not seen in a lifetime, it infuses the dreadful sandstorms with necromantic power, and nothing can stand before it. They need a necromancer. One such is Issylt Iskaldur, who has left the city of Erishal with her teenage apprentice Moth in the aftermath of the plot there. They travel first to Iskar, to rescue her old ally Adam from prison. There they are followed by spies an assassins. Many factions in Assar want Issylt, to bind the Ghost Wind, or end it, or to die so that the status quo will remain. The fire-mage Asheris, now advisor to the Empress, calls her in directly, but the wizards of Quietus would recruit her or slay her as she travels. Trailed by a kidnapper and assassin who walks through shadows, they set out across the empty deserts of Assar. Every step is weighted with history, old loves and ancient mistakes. When the secret of the Ghost Wind is made clear, slow death seems the best choice, for any other will slay all that lives. Or is there another option, for one who understands the ways of death and entropomancy? The book deals with themes of choice and necessity, and how people respond when all of their choices are bad ones.


Flaws of Libertarianism, Part 1:NAP

Libertarians like to talk a lot about what they call the Non Aggression principle, which they define as prohibiting “… the initiation or threatening of violence against a person or legitimately owned property of another. “(wiki) Like most libertarian principles, this fails to account for the reality of how liberty and freedom are actually encroached upon. Taken as it stands, it will inevitably serve to defend and entrench privilege, while denying the oppressed any ‘legitimate’ recourse. Economic and social coercion can be tools of tyranny as great as any thuggish secret police, unless they are actively combated. Under a libertarian regime, however, these types of coercion are enshrined into law, and defended by the full (physical) force of the state and society at large (since private violence is acceptable under the NAP in case of threats to legally owned property).

Economic coercion takes many forms, but one of the most blatant is the company town, which I will use as a salutary example. Keep in mind that the company town is not a thought experiment; it is a phenomenon which exists today where not prohibited by force of law. In the company town, the company owns every scrap of land within the town. The town is centered on a factory or extractive operation, which is the town’s primary source of employment. Other potential employment is found in support occupations: a general store, a bar, sometimes a brothel depending on local mores, possibly a school and a clinic. These are also run by the company. Housing is provided as an employment benefit, or is rented to workers at exorbitant rates. The company store’s prices are likewise high, and wages at the factory are low, ensuring that money never lasts until the next pay check and the workers are forced to buy necessities on credit. In this situation, the workers cannot fight the company in any respect: anyone who tries to buck the system will be fired, and their spouse, if any, as well. They will then be evicted, either because they and their families are no longer entitled to employment benefits. And/or are in debt of the rent. They have no money to leave town, because they’re in debt to the company store. Anyone who offers them shelter or assistance is subject to the same treatment. This means that, practically speaking, the company threatens their lives if they disobey; they will be thrown out to freeze or starve, and there is no recourse for them. Libertarians insist that this is different from a gun to the head, but are unable to explain how, except that they declare it so.
A more diffuse but equally real example of economic aggression is redlining. Once again, this is a real practice, and one which continues to a degree today. Redlining consists of financial institutions simply refusing services to certain areas, which are largely inhabited by black people.
Banks drew red lines on city maps around the black neighborhoods, and deny mortgages, home improvement loans, and business loans to people who lived there. Insurance companies likewise would not insure homes or businesses owned by people within those boundaries. Denied even the possibility of acquiring capital, the inhabitants of those neighborhoods are at the mercy of rent-seeking landlords and whatever low wage employment may be offered to them (see social coercion, below). They have no opportunity to start a business, own a home, or even acquire significant savings, since they are forced into low wage employment, and the price of rent and groceries is elevated by the need for an absentee owner to gouge out a share. Such money as comes into the neighborhood rapidly flees again, into the pockets of the absentee owners, and the residents are trapped in a permanent cycle of poverty.

Social coercion also takes many forms, from which I will select sexism, simply because I happen to have seen a great deal of discussion of it lately and it’s fresh in my mind. In America today (and also other places, to a greater or lesser extent; I use the U.S. due to personal familiarity), to be a woman means to be denied choices in many ways. There are certain fields that are designated as ‘women’s fields’ in society, while other professions are assumed to be ‘men’s professions.’ When a woman seeks to enter any field that is not designated as appropriate, she will face a large number of obstacles, which will in many case prove insurmountable. To begin with, female students in ‘inappropriate;’ fields are routinely excluded from class discussions by professors, graded more harshly than male counterparts, and often subject to continued ridicule from professors and classmates alike. As a brief digression, before anyone starts up with the ‘toughen up, words will never hurt me’ bullshit, just stop right there. Harassment and ridicule do take a psychological toll, and ongoing psychological stress can and does create medical problems of both psychiatric and non psychiatric types (e.g. ulcers). Suffering from that type of stress also degrades actual performance relative to those who are not under such stresses. Those who persevere will find that they are hired less often, let go sooner, promoted more rarely and paid less than men with the same qualifications. They will also typically continue to suffer harassment, often of a sexual nature, and ongoing ridicule in the course of doing their jobs. They will be assigned to demeaning and subservient tasks and put in positions which ignore their training and credentials. Once again, this constitutes coercion of women into certain areas of life, denying them the free agency men take as their due.