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The War Prayer

The Siege of Burning Grass

By Premee Mohamed 

2 May, 2024

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Premee Mohamed’s 2024 The Siege of Burning Grass is a stand-alone (thus far) military speculative fiction novel. Or perhaps anti-military is a more accurate term…

The war between the Empire of Varkal and Med’ariz rages on. The Meddon, the people of Med’ariz, have superior technology; Varkal has elan, human wave tactics, and a willingness to redirect as much of the economy to the war effort as it takes to win, regardless of the consequences. Varkal is not winning and is growing increasingly impoverished.

Alefret was a founding member of a pacifist pact. His principled pacifism has greatly displeased the Varkal government.

A Meddon victory would be followed by Varkal’s complete subjugation, followed by de-industrialization and linguistic and cultural erasure. Varkal would vanish. Since the Meddon will not deign to speak with Varkal, armistice is impossible. Only a Varkal victory can save Varkal. In the eyes of the Varkal government, to oppose the war on any grounds is to be objectively pro-Meddon.

Varkal had stringent human rights laws. These of course had to be set aside for the duration of the emergency. Thus, it was trivial for Varkal to round up the signers of the pacifist Pact before the Pact began concrete efforts to sway public opinion. Many of the Pact members were executed out of hand, due process being just one of many procedures no longer deemed necessary. Alefret was imprisoned, tortured, and used for mad science experiments.

Even pacifists can be useful for the war effort. Varkal has a cunning plan to force Meddon to surrender. Varkal believes that Alefret is known to the enemy. Two men might be able to cross the lines and remain free… if one of them is Alefret, whom the Meddon probably trust. If the other man is Corporal Qhudur, a resolute Varkal fanatic, it should be an easy matter to bring Meddon to its knees.

There are problems with the plan. Alefred must be convinced to partake in a mission that he believes is wrong. The pair must survive the battlefields that lie between Varkal and their destination. The pair must find their way into the floating enemy city of Turmoskal, which is not only well defended, but suspended on anti-grav. Once there, they must somehow defeat a nation against which the combined power of Varkal has been futile.

Corporal Qhudur is a determined, ruthless fanatic. One-legged Alefred is unwilling.


This would be an interesting example of a very specific sort of speculative fiction story, if only I could reveal that it belonged to that particular class of spec fic story. But that would be a spoiler.

I can say, however, that Burning Grass is a war story where, just as in World War One1, the conflict is both unnecessary and yet, for cultural reasons, seemingly inevitable. Varkal hungers for yet more territory (despite being unable to fully use the territory they already claim), while the Meddon consider Varkal so laughably backward that Meddon can’t be bothered to communicate, let alone discuss the merits (or lack thereof) of Varkal territorial claims2, or even to arrange a truce despite the very real damage that Varkal is inflicting on the Meddon.

Alefret is, alas, an ineffectual pacifist. He does have a solid case against the war. The empire’s determination to conquer land it does not need has killed millions, wounded more, broken whatever feeble aspirations it had regarding rule of law, shattered the economy, and made life in Varkal worse. But Alefret had no plan for swaying the Varkal masses to his side. He could impede Qhudur, but always gives in and cooperates with the corporal. His submissiveness results in a substantial body count.

This isn’t to say the novel is on Varkal’s side. It is not: Varkal is deluded and Qhudur homicidally deranged. It’s just that not all pacifists are willing to lay down their lives for their beliefs (as did Sophie Scholl). Alefret always does what it takes to stay alive.

For that matter, while the novel offers a jaundiced view of the military apparatuses and governments of both sides, it’s kinder to the little people caught in the gears of national rivalry. Varkal’s people, for example, do their duty… because the alternative is execution or torture. The unfortunates living in or too close to the contested territory can only try to stay alive long enough for the war to end.

Mohamed offers an adroitly crafted and unromantic tour of war, one that readers will not soon forget.

The Siege of Burning Grass is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Chapters-Indigo), and here (Words Worth Books). I did not find The Siege of Burning Grass at Apple Books.

1: World War One is my go-to example of an unnecessary war conducted almost as badly as humanly possible. However, it’s not the only obvious model on which the author might have drawn. There are considerably more recent examples.

2: Varkal land claims appear to boil down to that land exists so we want it and our desire confers total justification because destiny!”

Neither side has allies, the Meddon because they do not see the need and Varkal because every other nation sensibly loathes and distrusts their empire. Other nations may welcome the current war because it distracts Varkal from wars of conquest against weaker nations.