Last week, I posted my review of Rook by Sharon Cameron which is a retelling of The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy set in a dystopian future and the world that Cameron created was actually quite fascinating, if a bit confusing. When I first picked up the novel, I actually thought this was set following the French Revolution in 1789 so I had to go back and start again once the timeline was revealed. With that in mind, I thought I write this post for anyone out there who was also similarly confused or just couldn’t keep track of it all.
Rook is set sometime after 2800 in a world that went through a magnetic pole shift. Contrary to a complete magnetic pole reversal, a simple shift would, according to Cameron, ‘turn [the magnetosphere] into something like Swiss cheese, exposing large swaths of humanity to deadly solar radiation while sparing others, and at the same time wiping clean the digital and electronic world on which we have become so dependent.’ As a result of this, humans apparently lost their ability to reason in a disaster, there was a widespread decline of civilisation, loss of population (dubbed ‘The Great Death’), and generally chaos reigned in the world.
Now, once the situation became even slightly manageable, the entire world apparently entered in an Anti-Technology pact, because the Ancients of the Time Before (the people living before The Great Death) had become too dependent on technology, which meant the only logical solution was to completely ban everything they deemed was a dangerous machine. Which begs the question: what is a machine for the people of this world as they still use clocks and other machine-like objects without those being illegal. Cameron’s reasoning behind this utter hatred of technology, is that we became so dependent on it that it contributed to a higher number of deaths following the polar shift, since we didn’t know how to survive in the wild by ourselves.
If you know anything about the topography around Paris, you’d be just as confused as I was when reading the description Cameron gives. Here, Paris is built on two levels: The Upper City on high cliffs and the sunken centre that is the Lower City. Paris, today, is relatively flat, which made me wonder where these cliffs came from. One explanation I’d come up with early on was the event that the sea level had lowered significantly which lead to the Seine creating a canyon in order to reach the sea level but later it’s revealed that the catacombs had actually collapsed, bringing down a significant part of the city and creating a 20m (65 ft.) difference between the two levels.
The Commonwealth, on the other hand, seems to have regressed into a country side. On the English side of the channel, the story takes place in Kent (I assume this is modern day Kent since it’s right across the channel and would make moving through the two locations fairly easy) which is described in a way that reminded me of a scenery out of Downton Abbey, with a few modern elements like the A5 thrown in. In this future, London had been lost (honestly how can you lose London?), presumably buried, and the quest to find it holds the same fascination as the one to find Atlantis does in our days.
The societies: The Sunken City vs. The Commonwealth
The story of Rook is set in The Sunken City and The Commonwealth (Paris and England respectively), where Sophia Bellamy hops between both as the Red Rook freeing prisoners in the city and an upper middle class woman in her home country.
The Commonwealth, along with the Sunken City, are the only two governments we are aware of that still keep to the Anti-Technology Pact (Spain and China have both broken it, while Finland is only mentioned in passing without much elaboration). This government leads a policy of ‘self-reliance’ where its citizens are responsible for themselves mostly, only having to follow general guidelines set by the government. This leads to the existence of militias instead of a proper army and police force, which work with the government rather than for it. However, the Parliament does reserve the privilege of the freedom of the press for itself, so the nation’s legal information is controlled and censured.
The society Sofia navigates is heavily inspired by 18th century France and England, so her role as a woman in it is to be upwardly mobile where social class is concerned and to marry rich. She heavily disagrees with this but understands the need for it, given that her family is knee-deep in debt and only her marriage can save them. The Parliament requires women to be ‘bought’ upon their engagement through a marriage fee, kind of like a reverse dowry, if the husband to be cannot come up with the set amount of money, then the marriage isn’t recognised by the government.
The Sunken City
The Sunken City’s society is much more fascinating because it is largely inspired by the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror that followed combined with the usual dystopian elements of an oppressive government and distorted information. In this case, the event that triggered the revolution was the Premier, head of government, lifting the ban on technology which lead to the replacement of workers by rudimentary machines (the final drop was a baker replacing his workers by a mill). The ban is quickly reinstated, and the hatred of technology is reinforced. Unlike the Commonwealth, the city doesn’t have this policy of self-reliance but it does have a very clear distinction between upper and lower class, a distinction that is also physically marked since the Upper Class lives in the heavily guarded Upper City, and the two cannot mix without the Premier’s permission. The order is kept thanks to a police force, the gendarmes, while anyone who opposes the revolution (or looks at the Premier sideways) is decapitated by The Razor, a remake of the guillotine.
The language spoken in the sunken city appears to be a descendant of modern day French and this is where I have a small issue with it. This story takes place at least 800 years from today, in a world that was at least partially destroyed, which would mean that governments, countries, and official languages and education weren’t accessible to all for at least a generation. Languages themselves are constantly evolving, and French is no exception; medieval French is just a tad most comprehensible than old English to modern French speakers, and 12th century French is even harder to understand. This, coupled with the fact that the smaller a group speaking the same language is, the easier it is for that language to mutate over the course of time. From what we know, the Parisian language spoken in the City and early 20th century French are very similar, to the point where Sophie and René can understand a few lines of a text from 1905. I wouldn’t be nitpicking at the language, but Cameron does differentiate Commonwealth (English) from Parisian (French) when the characters are speaking and it appears as though she even translated certain sentence structures from one language into the next in order to convey the appropriate accent (instead of doing it phonetically, like JK Rowling does in Harry Potter).
When the technology failed and satellites fell to earth, the Parisians created a religion out of it, which Leblanc attempts to replace with his own instead. The old religion holds a red rook as a patron saint because of the image painted on the satellite that guided the people to underground shelter during The Great Death, while the new one personifies Fate as a goddess.
Like his real life equivalent, Robespierre, LeBlanc creates a new religion and makes himself the leader of it. This new religion is based on the personification of Fate as the True Goddess, with Luck as her handmaiden. It’s a fairly straightforward religion, with black and white as the two primary colours associated with it, and a number of rituals, all of which are based on asking a question with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer and then interpreting the ritual result. This is done in two ways, the most common way is by tossing a coin: heads means yes while tails means no, while the second way involves having one colour dominate between black and white, for example in order to decide whether it is the appropriate time to kill Premier Allemande, Leblanc splatters a small amount of his blood on a half-white, half-black circle, and then counts the blood drops on each colour, the colour with the most gives him the answer. I know that Robespierre himself also established a religion after the revolution, and I don’t know how similar the religion in the book is to its real life inspiration, but I was impressed and pleased by the detail put into the one I became acquainted with.