War by Laura Thalassa

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Before you guys read this review I want to flag that the review includes discussion of:

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genocide, both real and fictional, specifically including mass beheadings and murder of children; rape; and both Islamophobia AND Antisemitism.

I honestly found this book very hard to read and hard to write about, especially with what’s in the news these days. I’m sorry if this is upsetting for you guys to read. I thought about not reviewing it but I think there is a worthwhile discussion to be had about what it means that a book like this not only exists, but is laden with positive reviews on GoodReads. I’m struggling with all of that and I’m not sure I get to answers, but anyway – read with caution, please.

I started trying to write my review of War by Laura Thalassa on the day after the Turkish air force started bombing Kurdish-controlled portions of Syria.

I’m not sure there is ever an easy day to try to review a book in which the love interest is the architect of a genocide that results in thousands of on-page deaths. As I write this now, I’m looking at a photo of a screaming Kurdish woman running with a baby in her arms. I know that I have never felt anything like the fear and anguish she was feeling when that photo was taken. I hope that she’s alive. I hope her child is alive. I know that many others are not.

This is war. It’s not sexy. It’s not hot. And it’s definitely not a meet-cute.

The premise of Laura Thalassa’s Four Horsemen series is that the Four Horsemen of the Christian Book of Revelation (Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death) are sequentially released on the world. War is the second book in the series, following Pestilence (reviewed by Elyse here). The heroine in War is Miriam, who is described as half-Jewish, half-Muslim and lives in Jerusalem. Miriam has heard rumors about the Horseman, specifically War and the destruction he brings. Within just a few pages, he appears with an army, destroys Jerusalem, and declares Miriam to be his fated wife. For the rest of the book, Miriam travels with War’s army south through Egypt and into Sudan as they attack cities and kill thousands.

Miriam and War become sexually and emotionally involved fairly quickly. However, Miriam continues to try to thwart War through various means, including trying to kill him, attempting to protect a few citizens during battle, and offering him sex in exchange for not destroying the aviaries of carrier pigeons that the cities use (in this post-technology future) to warn one another of his approach. She repeatedly asks him to stop killing, and he repeatedly refuses although it’s clear that he could do so. When Miriam becomes pregnant, however, War has a crisis of conscience, realizes that everyone is somebody’s child, and calls the whole thing off. That is, essentially, the end.

Collaboration during a military occupation is morally complex. Throughout human history, women have made all manner of compromises to protect themselves and their families in wartime. Women have acquiesced to sex (it’s difficult, given the circumstances, to call it consent) to obtain safe passage out of war zones, to keep their children from being killed, to put food on the table during blockades. Collaborators may be envied during an occupation. They have historically been subject to terrible abuse – often fairly misogynistic in tone – when an occupation ends. It’s easy to decry collaboration, but much harder to know what any of us would do when faced with the choice to collaborate or face starvation, abuse, or murder.

Other characters in the book frequently assume that Miriam is making that kind of compromise – trading sex for safety, whether her own safety or that of others. When Miriam arrives in War’s camp, she’s told that it is a dangerous place for women and that it’s safer to consent to sex with one man in order to be safe from rape by others. However, other than the bargain over the aviaries, there’s no suggestion that Miriam’s sexual relationship with War is a ploy to protect herself or others. Rather, we are repeatedly told (the book is first-person, from Miriam’s POV), how hot War is, in an interior monologue that is a fairly jarring departure from the repeated descriptions of bloody, violent death.

In certain respects, this book fails due to its own honesty. The sheer, unmitigated brutality of War’s march south is extensively described. When we first see War, he is drenched in blood. His army kills everyone: soldiers, children, the elderly. Anyone who survives the initial assault by his human army is butchered by an army of zombies. Captured people are given the choice to swear allegiance to War or die by beheading. War has the ability to read the hearts of humans and know if they are good or bad, but he doesn’t use this to decide who dies. Everyone dies, and they die on-page.

A few times during the book, Miriam wonders why God (and God is expressly stated to exist) has sent the Horsemen to earth. The question is never answered. The book frequently references how much evil humans have done, and initially I thought that perhaps the resolution would be that if people pulled together to save themselves and War saw sufficient demonstration of the goodness of humanity, he would stop. But the book is full of humans who resist evil – from the captives who refuse to follow War to women who defend their children – and they are killed anyway. Their defiance and self-sacrifice doesn’t make an impression on War. The only thing that really changes him is Miriam’s pregnancy. It isn’t humanity that needs to learn a lesson, apparently: it’s just War.

As Elyse noted when she reviewed Pestilence, a particularly troubling aspect of this world is that there are no consequences if a Horseman stops killing. War states that God sent him to kill, but God does not punish him when he stops killing. There are no repercussions. And War does not suggest that there will be. He wants to kill, until he doesn’t anymore, and then he stops. There’s an intense cognitive dissonance between his love for Miriam and their baby and his complete lack of empathy for any other human creature, a dissonance the book never resolves. We’re told that loving Miriam and the baby means that he’s no longer willing to kill (although he shows no remorse for his past murders), but I couldn’t understand why that changed him when nothing else had.

Ultimately, the ending left me feeling as if the murder and rape of countless thousands had all simply been a device for the moral awakening of a single brutal man. But the people who die in a genocide are not tools for someone else’s personal development. They are real individuals, each of them someone’s son or daughter, someone’s sister or mother. Each death is the death of an entire world, a future that will never be. Yes, this is fiction – but real war, real genocide, the real slaughter of innocent people is happening right now. A book that portrays a perpetrator of genocide as a dreamy hero and centers his redemption over the stories of his victims is not a book that I can recommend.

In many respects, Thalassa makes the situation worse by setting this book in present-day Israel. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is extremely complex, far too complex to serve as a scribbled-in backdrop for a romance. There are references to a civil war that was won by Muslim forces that established a state called New Palestine and the book feels fairly Islamophobic in several respects – the closest thing the book has to villains (other than the ostensible love interest) are several of War’s commandos (who try to rape and murder Miriam), all of whom have Arabic names. (I suppose they could be Christian Arabs but the fact that Christians live in the Middle East is not recognized at any point in this book.) Women don’t have equal rights in Muslim-ruled New Palestine, and Miriam only knows how to fight due to illicit lessons from former Israeli soldiers. At the same time, the book isn’t pro-Israel. Miriam lumps the Jewish side of the civil war together with the Muslim side and describes them all as sectarian fanatics. Dismissing the complicated mix of history, religion, political ideology and geopolitics which drives that conflict as simply ‘sectarian fanaticism’ felt uncomfortably simplistic and stereotypical to both Israelis and Palestinians. To me, it underscored the inappropriateness of choosing that location, which is home to a very real daily struggle, as the setting for the book.

A romance fails if the love story does not convince the reader, and while I was told that Miriam and War were in love, I was unconvinced (although I was sold on their sexual attraction). A romance also fails if the reader is not invested in the couple’s HEA. I wasn’t just uninvested, I was actively disgusted by being asked to root for a happily ever after for this couple. I read the final chapter – a fairly sappy happy-families moment in which Miriam introduces her toddler to her mother and sister – and all I could think about was dead children. I did not want a happy ending for War. I wanted some kind of justice.

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