Sci-fi Fantasy Novel Review: The Siege of the Burning Grass by Premee Mohamed

This review is based on an eARC (Advance Reading Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The Siege of the Burning Grass will be released on March 12, 2024.

I’ve been hearing a whole lot about Premee Mohamed for a few years now, and while I’ve tried a handful of her short stories—including one that finished among my favorites of the year in 2022—I had yet to read any of her longer work. The release of The Siege of the Burning Grass gave me an opportunity to change that. 

The Siege of the Burning Grass takes place on a world in which a society struggling to leverage bioengineering for technological breakthroughs is locked in a seemingly endless war with a technologically superior foe. The lead is an avowed pacifist, imprisoned for his refusal to lift a finger for the war effort. But when the military offers him freedom in exchange for a mission to join a pacifist movement in the enemy capital and agitate for surrender, his desire for freedom and the chance to spread his ideals war in his mind against his distrust of the military and commitment to stand apart from them. 

It’s a fascinating premise, and it’s supported by a descriptive prose style that doesn’t push the pace but rewards the reader with some gorgeous turns of phrase. Those two things alone are enough to make The Siege of the Burning Grass an interesting and rewarding read. But as the story develops, it becomes clear that very little time will be spent on the main phase of the mission—the actual coordination with pacifists across enemy lines. Instead, the core of the book is the relationship between the pacifist lead and his reflexively violent military handler. Nearly half the book is travel, and even when they reach their destination, the constant conflict between the two is just as much the focus as any external plot progression. 

And that relationship offers as much conflict as anybody could want, though it tends to fall along a few well-worn paths. There’s interpersonal conflict, as both figures detest the principles around which the other organizes his life. There’s internal conflict, as the lead constantly wonders whether he’s betraying his own cause by undergoing a mission that will surely be hijacked to some violent end. And there’s external conflict, with plenty of obstacles to overcome to even reach the enemy capital. 

But for all that’s happening, both inside and outside the lead’s mind, the plot tends to feel stagnant for long stretches, simply because both characters stubbornly cling to their preferred philosophies, and their bickering accomplishes little. For readers who enjoy that oil and water dynamic, The Siege of the Burning Grass is bound to be a winner. But for other readers, it’s just as likely to cause frustration, as the same conversations recur over and over, leading nowhere. Realistic? Absolutely. Fun? Perhaps not. 

And this philosophical clash is the true emotional core of the book. There are hints about a technological secret that keeps the enemy ahead, and the infiltration plot similarly promises big events to come. And those seeds come good as the story reaches its climax—make no mistake, things happen. But they happen quickly, just as the story comes to a close, and they never fully feel like they take center stage. There’s a plot here, but it takes a backseat to the interpersonal conflict. 

And while I wasn’t as compelled by that interpersonal conflict as I might’ve hoped, there were plenty of little flourishes that I especially enjoyed here. I already highlighted the prose, but the lyricism at times flows well into the dreamlike, which works beautifully to highlight a main character who isn’t always entirely lucid following a debilitating injury. And while the contrast between the two sides can make one feel like the obvious villain, the shocked responses to the lead’s appearance in the foreign capital indicate a pretty thorough eugenics program hiding beneath their technological superiority. Details like these add a strong note of realism and helps the novel resist simplistic interpretation. 

Overall, this is a book that is only going to wow a reader willing to buckle up for a slow-burn ideological conflict that goes around quite a few circles before finding any modicum of resolution. But even if the main plot takes a backseat to the interpersonal conflict, the lush prose and little details of worldbuilding and characterization gives Siege of the Burning Grass more than a few selling points. 

Recommended if you like: lyrical prose, slow-burn ideological conflict. 

Can I use it for BingoIt’s hard mode for POC Author, and in a couple weeks, it will doubtless fit the Published in 2024 square on next year’s card. 

Overall rating: 14 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *