Liz Bourke reviews In Evil Times by Melinda Snodgrass

In Evil Times, Melinda Snodgrass (Titan 978-1-7832-9584-5, $14.95, 400pp, pb). July 2017. Cover by Alex Ronald.

Locus Magazine, Science Fiction FantasyI wanted to have good things to say about In Evil Times, sequel to Melinda Snodgrass’s The High Ground (2016). Instead, I found reading it to be a very alienating experience. This is not, I hasten to add, because of any insufficiency in Snodgrass’s prose or skill as a novelist. Rather, it’s because of the kind of novel In Evil Times is.

In Evil Times is, I understand, the middle novel of a trilogy. It’s a book of transitions. Protagonists Princess Mercedes de Arango, the daughter of the emperor, and Thracius “Tracey” Belmanor, the son of a tailor, have graduated from the elite military training facilities of the High Ground and entered the navy. Mercedes is making a political marriage with Beauregard “Boho” Cullen, aristocrat and coward, despite her dreadfully unsuitable attraction to Tracey, and is focused on a) avoiding having children in a society where contraception is illegal until after she’s done her military service, and b) proving herself to the old guard during her military ser­vice. She’s the first woman to join the space navy and has to be very careful, since her father the emperor is upsetting a whole swathe of society in making his daughter his heir, in the absence of a male heir of his body.

Tracey, meanwhile, graduates at a lower rank than his schoolmates despite his skills, because of his social status. His military service is marked by constant humiliations and abuse, and eventually his bull-headed sense of right and wrong, his honour, and his pride, bring him into direct conflict with Princess Mercedes – who’s the one person who actually supports his military career, and who might have been persuaded to work with him, maybe. In the end, Tracey’s military career will come to an igno­minious conclusion, in a frame-job orchestrated by Mercedes herself.

This outcome is not why I find In Evil Times alienating. Rather, I come away from it with a sense of intense dislike because of the choices of its worldbuilding, and the elements on which Snodgrass chooses to focus. This is an enor­mously bigoted universe. Not only is it painfully sexist, but all the human characters, even the sympathetic ones, are incredibly prejudiced against aliens. The sexism is, of course, tied up with xenophobia: the fear that the aliens outnumber humanity, and the idea that humans need to breed – with natural, not genetically modified body-births, because otherwise they might not be really human – fast enough to re­main on top of the power heap. (This makes for an uncomfortably close parallel with the logic of white nationalism, now marching under a fresh spotlight in all its murderous horror.) This is a novel in which a female officer is raped by a colleague, and where we are treated to Tracey’s outrage and horror – not the officer in question’s – that the rapist will face no consequences, and that the officer will have to continue to work alongside her attacker.

This is also a novel in which we’re treated to a portrayal of how the empire incorporates “lost” human colonies into its hegemony. The colony we see is one founded by lesbian separatists, es­sentially – an Amazonian society that manages its reproduction through artificial reproductive techniques, involving genetic manipulation, that are outlawed in the empire. The empire manages the incorporation of lost human colonies through lies, deceit, and overwhelming military force. Once they have established imperial pre-emi­nence, they remove all children from the colony and foster them with imperial citizens, while supporting mass immigration into that colony – thus destroying the culture of that colony.

In Evil Times doesn’t necessarily promote the sexist and bigoted worldview of the uni­verse in which its events take place. And it is a well-constructed middle book, with interesting characters (although they’re all horrible people who are horribly bigoted). But reading it, for me, resembles the experience of being punched in the face with a hammer, repeatedly. It’s not Snod­grass’s fault – my face-tenderness experience is a side-effect of her interest in exploring the trials and constraints of a strongly hierarchical, strati­fied world within a military-aristocrat milieu. But as a woman – as a queer woman – I find the world I live in quite alienating enough without having fiction punch the “there’s no room for you to exist, much less be happy” up to 90. In Evil Times really doesn’t work for me, but its approach to worldbuilding and storytelling may well work perfectly fine for people who’re feeling a little less sensitised by current global politics.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, her Patreon, or Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

This review and more like it in the October 2017 issue of Locus.

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