The sixth village on the great and dreadful prairie between Ammet and Oshe is as wild as it is free. The prairie is also home to many of Ammet’s criminals and it’s the best way for Ammet to manage its prison population, while slowly building human habitats. After all, what better way to lay claim to the prairie than to slowly encroach upon it with slowly growing settlements? So far, Ruse has found his place in the village. He earns his daily bread by disposing of the dead at the city dump and bringing back news of any new goods Ammet’s powerful wizards have transported there for the benefit of the village. But he also has the task of manning the secret mirror used for communication between the various villages. And Ruse is determined to help the villages thrive. Not for the glory of Ammet, but to eventually help the villages claim their own independence—thereby thwarting the plans of the ruling class in Ammet.
But Ruse’s drive for revenge has tempered since he arrived on the prairie. You see, Ruse knows the prairie is more than just a harsh landscape that can dash the best laid plans. The prairie is immortal magic…and Ruse will stop at nothing to keep the prairie safe. When a strange newcomer arrives at the village, Ruse is instantly suspicious. Old friends also bring information about a change in Ammet’s plans for the villages the prisoners have built. Soon, Ruse will have to reveal who he really is if he is to have any hope of saving the prairie and the life he loves.
Ground of Insurrection is a dystopian fantasy novella from author Mell Eight. The prairie setting is austere and enthralling and Eight found a good balance between showing what daily life was like for Ruse and his friends, combined with world-building details about the origins of those villages. I liked the juxtaposition of a wild prairie—which made me think of wild west tropes—with the obvious magic that sustains the village. I think this also worked well with the very hierarchical society Eight describes. Overall, it gives a great mental image of a wild, untamed landscape, but one in which there are rules that must be followed if you want to keep your life. This actually works on two levels. First, new arrivals to the village have to mesh with the rest of society or risk getting killed for upsetting the balance or not earning their daily meals. Second, the village as a whole has to appease the magical prairie if they want their various ventures to succeed (these ventures are often development tasks given by the city wizards, like starting agricultural activities or building two-story abodes).
The one hiccup for me was how Eight tries to blend the prairie-dwelling village of prisoners to Ruse’s backstory. It all becomes clear enough, but some of the big reveals felt clumsy. For example, someone’s name gets dropped into a conversation, but there was no build-up, no foreshadowing, no context in which to understand why that name was in any way important. For me, this made it difficult to mesh the prairie world I’d been immersed in with the drama that actually lead to Ruse living in that prairie world.
As for the romance aspects, I personally enjoyed how pragmatically Ruse handles his non-existent love life. When Ruse first arrives on the prairie (not the town, just on the prairie), he’s at the mercy of the elements and meets an enigmatic man named Mesic. The two spend some time together that leads to Ruse developing real feelings for Mesic. But Ruse needs to get to the village if he hopes to survive, so the two part ways. All of that happens off-page before the story begins. The Ruse we meet is burning with unrequited love for Mesic, but knowing that he must wait for Mesic to come to him, Ruse slakes his lust with another consenting villager when his hand just no longer satisfies. On page, Ruse finally gives into a little sexual release with Ethan not long before he finally gets another chance to see Mesic and lo, Mesic is jealous. That combination of unrequited love, the love interest being jealous, and the two slowly working towards finding a way to be together was pretty enticing to me.
Overall, I thought Ground of Insurrection was an exciting read. I liked how the introduction painted a fairly straightforward picture, wild west meets magic, but the reality is more nuanced, with so-called criminals who just might be better at community building than the society that rejected them. I enjoyed Ruse’s unrequited love thread that morphs into a genuine get-together and how their relationship plays a critical role in saving both the village Ruse helped build and the prairie itself. If you’re looking for a short story that still offers a rich world with interesting and dimensional characters, I think you’ll enjoy this book.