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A Country of Ghosts by Margaret Killjoy

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Dimos Horacki is a Borolian journalist and a cynical patriot, his muckraking days behind him. But when his newspaper ships him to the front, he’s embedded in the Imperial Army and the reality of colonial expansion is laid bare before him.

His adventures take him from villages and homesteads to the great refugee city of Hronople, built of glass, steel, and stone, all the while a war rages around him. The empire fights for coal and iron, but the anarchists of Hron fight for their way of life.

From the editor of Mythmakers & Lawbreakers: Anarchist Writers on Fiction and author of What Lies Beneath the Clock Tower comes a seditious novel of utopia besieged, a novel that challenges every premise of contemporary society.
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We are, by now, used to seeing libertarian utopian science fiction and fantasy. It has, indeed, become so commonplace as to almost be apolitical. Anarchist utopias, however, and especially anarchist utopias fighting imperialism, are rarer, yet in A Country of Ghosts that is exactly what Margaret Killjoy has given us.

Let us first dispense with the obvious. A Country of Ghosts is incredibly, bluntly, openly, often didactically anarchist-utopian. Killjoy’s twinned aims, of presenting us with a novel, and presenting us with his utopian programme, are in constant tension, hence passages which serve to describe (thankfully without quite becoming “As you know, Bob…”) the society of Hron, the country of ghosts of the title. They’re integrated into the narrative to varying degrees of success, aided by the protagonist’s role as an outsider, as a journalist, and as someone socialised to imperialist capitalism. However, for the reader, they can devolve into frustration in their utopianism; Killjoy’s vision of anarchists is almost inhuman in its perfection, in its refusal to allow for human emotion. The failure mode of this utopia isn’t dystopia, it’s disbelief.

As a novel, though, A Country of Ghosts is rather stronger. Its characters are, Hron as a society aside, wonderfully human and believable; they’re all flawed, they’re all strange and a little strained, they’ve made mistakes and are imperfect. Each and every one has their own cross to bear and as the narrative goes on, some exchange crosses, some gain more, some lose theirs. It’s a brilliant piece of characterwork to see Killjoy dealing with Dimos’ increasing embrace of Hron society, to see his personality shift to align with it better; and to see how the Hron characters in the novel change how they relate to him as he shifts from an external observer, at most semi-comprehending, to an internal member. That this shift is incredibly accelerated, due to the pressurised situation of A Country Of Ghosts, can at times strain credulity – in the course of one conversation, at one point in the narrative, Dimos changes someone not only suspicious of him but downright hostile to him into a wary but strong ally – but on the whole, and especially in the core cast, it is carried off excellently.

It’s also worth noting that Killjoy has a queer protagonist, and one who is actively queer at that. A Country of Ghosts sees Dimos assessing various people as potential partners, although only one appears to go anywhere (and that, disastrously), but it also has Sorros’ mothers, a couple who from what we learn about them are wonderfully depicted, and Borolia itself is open to homosexuality, the army aside – indeed, Killjoy has a great bit of snark about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and women in the military there. It’s not so strong on genderqueerness, although there are hints at it, and one assumes it would be acceptable in Hron, but on sexuality it’s impressively matter-of-fact.

As far as plot goes, this serves mostly as a vehicle for Killjoy’s political speculations. A Country of Ghosts involves resistance to a larger, better armed invading imperial force, resistance that succeeds… because the politics of the invaded are better. It involves travels throughout the country, to see a libertarian city which feels rather more dystopian, and which holds the outcasts of Hron. It involves long passages simply contrasting Hron with Borolai, mainly for the purpose of attacking capitalism and imperialism. It’s not a badly written book, mind you; Killjoy’s writing makes this much smoother than the above precis, flowing along and drawing one in with its accessibility and drive, and his approach to style is fantastic, with a mix of the immediate and the recollected-with-hindsight that really emphasises the better qualities of the novel.

A Country of Ghosts hits the problem China Mieville has talked about in relation to Iron Council: it tries to present a society after the revolution… but Killjoy can’t quite depict the reality of that society. It remains a good, nippy, interesting read though, and the writing style really is to be recommended.

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