Book review: Burning Kingdoms, Lauren DeStefano

The second in Lauren DeStefano’s Internment Chronicles, Burning Kingdoms takes us from the kingdom of Internment — the floating city far above the Earth — to the world below and a kingdom at war, with politics our heroes don’t understand thanks to their remove from the societies they’ve always viewed from on high. It’s an intriguing book — on the one hand, I liked Perfect Ruin more for certain elements, including a fast, driven, aggressive plot, but Burning Kingdoms offered a more insightful, interesting, striking look at our characters and the setting.

I’ve seen some reviewers accusing it of having a bad case of ‘second book syndrome’ (I hope this reviewers know this is not in fact her second book — I think they mean the common pitfalls of sequels?) and I can definitely see where that’s coming from — it’s much slower, more languid, and clearly setting up for future books. However, I’m not entirely convinced that’s a bad thing, depending on how you approach the text and its purpose. As a book to advance action and the plot, Burning Kingdoms definitely didn’t accomplish very much. As a character study, though, it offered a great deal — and we underestimate the value of character studies; and we also underestimate teens when we assume they aren’t interested in them

This book picks up more or less where the previous entry left off, with the refugees from Internment being whisked away by a government official to a house filled with children and unfamiliar food and the lively environment of a totally new world. On Internment, everything is carefully, determinedly regimented, with rules about everything; you must maintain a certain physical appearance, you must not be curious, you must marry your assigned mate. It’s a world of harsh restrictions and potentially dire consequences.

On the Earth below, though, things are very different. It reads like a slightly tweaked version of the 1920s; the technology roughly maps to that period, people go to speakesies and wear flapper dresses, the language used hearkens to that period. It also has more speculative elements, though, like a fuel that could radically solve society’s energy problems. And, unlike Internment, society is facing a huge social problem: A war, and one that escalates quickly as our characters attempt to acclimate to their new environs, still not knowing if they’ll ever be able to go home again — if they even want to.

The acclimation at times felt a bit stiff and performative as characters exchanged words for things and talked about new vocabulary for familiar concepts, but I was more intrigued by the social acclimation. The people from Internment had to get used to totally different social mores and norms, and it was clearly a difficult adjustment for them. Earth offered considerable freedoms, but those came with hidden costs — ‘there is cruelty here too,’ a character remarks, and it comes out quickly and in full flower. It’s not a safe place to be, and our characters have to understand that, some learning the hard way.

In a sense, this is a fascinating exploration of a clash of two cultures meeting for the first time and trying to figure each other out. First contact narratives always fascinate me; what would we do if suddenly met with the inhabitants of a world not quite our own? What would we do if we were those people, a small band of individuals taking the plunge to a new place and hoping it turned out, curious to know what lay ahead? These are the kinds of questions that get asked and they’re not easily resolved — the king of Internment has long observed Earth and taken note of what happens below, and Earth is greatly intrigued by the floating kingdom in the sky, but it’s through Burning Kingdoms that they actually make contact.

And it’s through this text that we actually really go in depth on these characters. While the plot is relatively light, the character development is very deep, and it shows us what happens to a group of people thrown together by happenstance, some of whom actively dislike each other, all forced to stick together because the outside world is a hostile and potentially very dangerous place. At least they know each other and the place they come from, the traditions they’re familiar with, the strangeness of the things people on Earth take for granted, from religious beliefs to a diet high in animal products to burial practices. They cling to the known, even if it means dealing with people they hate.

And, like any group of people in tight quarters, they fight, they struggle, they betray, and their relationships to each other shift, evolve, and change. It’s a good thing in the context of a complicated narrative about the workings of friendship and how people deal with a new environment — I would be suspicious of a book where we didn’t see these things happening. While any text should develop the characters and show growth over the unfolding of the story, first contact novels in particular have a heavy pressure to do so, as characters must face not just each other but also the world around them.

I’m curious to see where the Internment Chronicles goes next. There’s a great deal to explore and DeStefano left a variety of ends open, creating openings for pushing the narrative drama in a number of directions. While she didn’t deliberately structure the book to make it frustratingly ambiguous in an obvious bid for a sequel, she definitely left some excellent questions at the end — and it’s a trait that’s characterised her other work, which tends to be highly lyrical and demanding of the reader. You have to read between the lines with her if you want to get the most out of her books, and those who found Burning Kingdoms not quite their jam might want to have a go with that in mind.