When Wardlaw approached me about reading this book he described it as " My best effort is to say it is 'Nineteen Eighty-Four meets Downton Abbey', although I'm not sure that is really all that helpful." He's right—it's a good effort, and it's not all that helpful. But it's close—A Bloody Arrogant Power doesn't have any of the kind of stories you'd find in Downton, but a dystopian Lady Mary and Mr. Carson could absolutely exist in this world. I'm not sure that's more helpful than Wardlaw's pitch, but I think it gets closer.
It's 2106, and we're a couple of generations past the societal collapse and the first attempt at rebuilding Western Society—or at least English Society (not really sure what happened in the rest of the world, assuming something did). There are some hints at what led to the economic and political collapse (I think the former precipitated the latter), but what we mostly see are the systems that arose to replace them and how they were designed to ensure the mistakes of the past weren't repeated (in what's dubbed "The Glorious Resolution").
One of the things that developed was the idea that each parcel of land could support X amount of human life. Each year those ruling each territory would have to balance out their resources and the population—eliminating the "surplus" to keep things moving, "discharging them to the public drains." True to form, to keep people from thinking about this too much, it's always about the surplus population, never about people, individuals, etc.—no, it's the dehumanized "surplus." The most disturbing part of this idea is that the whole of England seems to think this way—it's not until the last 10% of the book that anyone seems to have a problem with this. I certainly don't want to suggest that it's a problem with the book that this is the case, it's not surprising at all that an entire nation (if not the world) will temporarily buy into a horrible idea to the degree that no one thinks of objecting to it. I can absolutely accept a world where people are officially deemed as "surplus" and disposed of accordingly. In fact, there are those who've been warning us about being on that slippery slope. It's just depressing to see that idea so prevalent. I don't know if Wardlaw intended readers to fixate on this, but I sure did. It permeated so much of the book and horrified me at each brush with the idea.
On the whole, the infodumps he uses to explain the world to his readers are done very well—he never overwhelms or bogs down the story with them. We get a little here, a little there, scattered throughout. I do think Wardlaw could've been a little closer to overwhelming in the beginning—I had to read a little too far into the book before I really had an idea how things worked here (and I'm not convinced I sussed it all out correctly). It's clear that Wardlaw did a fantastic job creating this world, I just wish he'd done a better job showing it to the reader so we could appreciate it.
The protagonist, Donald Aldingford, is a barrister. He's not one of the ruling class—but he's adjacent to it. He gets to see a lot of what goes on behind the scenes in the government and is on the cusp of moving up in society to a position of distinction and honor. Then a few things happen that threaten to derail this.
First, he meets a younger woman who is about as far from privilege as you can get. There's something about her that appeals to Donald. Secondly, she brings news of his brother. Donald's spent years pretending he doesn't exist—in fact, there are few people who are aware Donald has a brother. He's in legal trouble that seems impossible to fix and there's a growing chance that this association will become public knowledge and the scandal will probably ruin Donald's career and family. Thirdly, a reform group is gaining momentum, and there are rumors flying about a Revolution coming.
None of the characters that we spend much time with are in the forefront of the reform party, but they are in the general orbit of that. I like this approach to things, we're not dealing with Katniss or Tris here—we're dealing with someone from Katniss' town, or one of the students that rallied behind Tris—that kind of thing. So we can see what's going on, but we don't have to be in the thick of it.
While that's a nice touch, the characters all could've used a little more work. I think it's largely a space/time issue—there's so much being established and happening in this book, that Wardlaw doesn't get a chance to round out the characters—they're all close (except for the sovereign that Donald spends most of his professional life serving—he might as well be twirling a mustache and tying people to railway tracks), but I never felt like I knew enough about them to care if they survived. It's an understandable problem given what he set out to accomplish in this book, but it is a problem.
I liked A Bloody Arrogant Power—just not as much as I wanted to. It's a wonderfully conceived novel—the execution could use a little more work, though. It's one of the best worlds I can remember (narratively speaking, not literally) in dystopian fiction lately. I expect in future books (there are a couple planned) that Wardlaw won't have to spend so much time establishing the world/culture and he can just jump into what the characters are doing, who they are and how can they make their way in the world. He sets the stage for some intriguing sequels, too. I really do want to know what happens after the rather abrupt ending and will be watching for the book.
Disclaimer: I received a copy of this novel from the author in exchange for this post, but as always, my opinions remain my own.