Steph Swainston’s third novel set in the Fourlands is “The Modern World” (retitled “Dangerous Offspring” for its US release). For the past few years the Insects have been kept at bay, the Castle’s forces keeping them from expanding their Paperlands. However, the armies of the Fourlands have been content with just stopping the Insects invading, they haven’t attempted to win back any of their former territory, at least until Frost – the Castle’s immortal architect – comes up with a plan to reclaim some of the Paperlands. The Insects can’t swim or so she sets about the construction of a giant dam across a river that forms the border of the Paperlands. Once the lake behind the dam is filled the insects there will be drowned, and once the waters subside the Fourlands’ armies can march in and reclaim the territory. As the dam nears completion military forces from across the Fourlands as well as all the Castle’s immortals gather to prepare to strike. The plan is a good one based on their knowledge of the Insects but some unforeseen events mean that the Fourlands end up in more danger than ever and the entire resources of the continent are forced to gather to withstand a potentially devastating Insect assault. The danger is so great that the Emperor himself is forced to ride out from the Castle for the first time in millennia to leads the Fourlands’ armies.
Meanwhile, the novel’s narrator Comet has his own problems as he is tasked by his immortal friend Lightning to search for Lightning’s teenaged daughter Cyan, who has run away from her minders on a visit to Hacilith, the Fourlands’ biggest and most dangerous city. A spoiled young noblewoman with little experience of the real world but a big sense of entitlement and thirst for new experiences and adventure, Cyan finds herself quickly out of her depth and Comet is forced to venture into Hacilith’s underworld (a place he is very familiar with) to retrieve her. As the time for the strike against the Insects approaches Comet and Cyan then join up with the Fourlands army and Cyan increasingly clashes with her father, forcing him to confront how out-of-touch with mortals he has become during his thousands-plus years of life.
Although the main part of the novel is taken up by the two plots described above, there are a number of interesting subplots, including a venture by Comet and Cyan to the world of Epsilon where they are pursued between worlds by a demonic hunt in the novel’s most thrilling sequence. There are also three particularly good flashbacks, the novel opening with Comet reliving the memories of a past disaster in the Insect war, as well as two interludes unusually narrated by someone other than Comet – Lightning reminiscing about his tragic first marriage and the Castle’s Doctor Rayne telling how she came to be immortal.
After the good but slightly disappointing second book this is a definite return to form. Swainston returns to the Insect War that is at the heart of the series and the battle scenes are the best in the trilogy, while the intrigue between the immortals is equally entertaining and has a direct impact on the battles. Refreshingly, although it makes a couple of appearances in the story, Epsilon and the worlds of the Shift don’t have quite the same impact on the main plot as in the previous books, instead the plot being largely decided in the Fourlands. The characterisation is again very good, the new major character Cyan is convincing although (since her character is basically a spoiled teenager) inevitably irritating. The chapters devoted to Lightning, Rayne and Frost allow a bit more character development for immortals other than Comet and even the enigmatic Emperor has a bit more of his character revealed, although in his case each answer only brings up more questions. Thought there is less time spent on world-building than in the first two books there is still some extra depth added to the world, although some minor aspects do seem a bit unconvincing - while a certain amount of anachronism is an integral part of the Fourlands, it does seem a bit out-of-place to have Comet complaining about his old haunts being replaced by trendy wine bars.
The quality of the writing is again high, whether it is describing the horrors of war, the petty complaints of a spoiled teenage or the wonder of Comet’s flight over the land, and seems a bit more polished and memorable than the prose in “No Present Like Time”, with a number of good quotes and passages. Lightning and Rayne’s flashbacks also have their own distinct voices, which make a nice change from Comet’s admittedly entertaining narration.
In summary, this is another excellent Fantasy novel which adds more depth to the Fourlands and its characters, while at the same time delivering a compelling plot with some excellent scenes.
Rating : 8.5 / 10
Steph Swainston’s second book was a sequel to The Year Of Our War. Although No Present Like Time isn’t a direct continuation of the first book’s plot it does feature the same setting and characters.
The War with the insects is under control (for the moment, at least) and it should be a time to relax for Comet and the other Immortals responsible for the newfound Peace. However, some drastic changes are about to occur to Comet’s comfortable existence.
The catalysts for the change are two near-simultaneous events. First Gio Serein, the castle’s Swordsman, who has held his position for centuries, is defeated in a challenge and displaced by a young man inexperienced in life, but with a great talent for duelling. Gio is incensed by his humiliating defeat and, faced with the prospect of losing his immortality and dying in a mere few decades, insists he should be returned to his rightful place as the best Swordsman. When the Emperor is unsympathetic, he leaves to try and raise a revolt against the Emperor and his former immortal colleagues in the Circle.
Meanwhile, the world is reacting to the news that a new inhabited island has been found, called Tris. This is shocking to the people of the Fourlands who believed they were alone in the world, and the Emperor quickly despatches a couple of ships to make contact with the people of Tris to try and bring them into the Empire.
Comet, the main character in this novel, as in “The Year Of Our War”, is none too pleased to be tasked with accompanying the ships on their long ocean voyage to Tris. For one thing, he is terrified of the ocean and of drowning, he is fighting a resurgent addiction to the drug which allows him to shift out of reality to the bizarre world of Epsilon and he is also suspicious that his wife is having an affair with the world’s Strongest Man.
It is meant to be a simple voyage of exploration, but when they reach Tris things quickly go wrong. The people of Tris with their unusual method of government (something called ‘Democracy’ which Comet finds inexplicable) aren’t keen on joining the Empire and some of Comet’s fellow immortals turn out to have their own agenda. As a series of diplomatic blunders turn the people of Tris against them, Comet also begins to suspect that there may have been more to the sudden discovery of Tris than was previously suspected.
After the excellence of “The Year Of Our War”, I was really looking forward to Swainston’s next book and this doesn’t disappoint. It isn’t quite as good as its predecessor – the prose isn’t quite as polished, the plot isn’t quite as compelling and the thrill of discovering a highly original new world is largely missing. It is easy to get the impression that Swainston may have spent a bit more time on her debut novel than the sequel, but that doesn’t mean “No Present Like Time” is a poor book, it is still very good.
Comet is still a likeable, if extremely flawed, character and the surrounding characters, both old and new, are both interesting and well-portrayed by the author. The Fourlands (and Epsilon) are still highly-original pieces of world-building and we get to see a bit more depth this time, with less of a focus on the destructive Insect War.
In summary, this is a good book. Not as stunningly brilliant as Swainston’s debut novel but still a highly entertaining read.
Rating : 8 / 10
“The Year Of Our War” is the debut fantasy novel by British author Steph Swainston. It is a highly impressive book, even ignoring the fact that this is her first novel. It is highly original, entertainingly plotted and very well written.
It is set in “The Fourlands”, a setting which is unusual mix of medieval society with some early-20th Century trappings such as semi-industrialised cities and tabloid newspapers. The population is divided into two categories, the immortal Eszai and the mortal Zescai. The Eszai consist of the fifty members of the “Castle Circle” (and their spouses) who are chosen for immortality because they are the best at a particular task – best archer, best warrior, best blacksmith, best sailor and so on. As long as a more-talented mortal doesn’t come along and successfully challenge them the Eszai can live forever, guiding and protecting the mortals. They are all ruled over by the immortal Emperor, San, who controls the circle and claims to be the oldest man alive.
The title of the book might imply that the Fourlands are fighting a year-long war. This is a bit misleading since the empire has been at war for millennia, fighting against an alien race they call “Insects”. The Insects are roughly man-sized, possibly sentient and extremely vicious, attacking everything that moves and covering the land in walls and buildings made of a strange pulpy material the Fourlanders call ‘paper’. Two millennia ago they suddenly appeared on the continent in a small enclosure, they quickly spread over a large part of the continent, turning it into their ‘Paperlands’ before the newly-formed Castle Circle managed to stem the tide. Since then the struggle has been ongoing. The book starts with an attempt by Dunlin Rachiswater, a mortal King of one of the Fourlands, to advance into insect territory and hopefully drive them back. The attempt goes horribly wrong, the King is mortally wounded and the Insects start spreading out into new territory, killing as they go. The Insects are appearing in greater number than ever before, and they threaten to overwhelm the Fourlands. At a time when unity is required, Dunlin’s heir cowers behind his castle walls with his army while the Eszai squabble amongst themselves.
The main character of the book is Comet, the Messenger of the Circle and the only immortal able to fly, due to his unusual ancestry. After a harsh upbringing in the gangs of Hacilith, the Fourlands’ largest city, he gained immortality by challenging the previous Messenger. Now he finds himself charged with discovering where the Insects are coming from, while at the same time mediating between feuding immortals. His other problem is an addiction to the drug ‘Cat’ which allows him to ‘shift’ realities into the world of Epsilon, a world he can’t prove exists. Epsilon is a surreal place, seemingly largely populated by puns (inhabitants include Fibre Tooth Tigers, Laardvarks, Impossums, Whorses and Problemmings – lighter than air rodents that throw themselves off cliffs and float into the air), dominated by the vicious Tines and fighting its own war against Insects.
The conflict between the immortals is caused by a dispute between Mist, the Circle’s Sailor, and his wife Ata, who hates her husband and believes she should take on the title of ‘Sailor’. Their marital dispute threatens to turn into a martial one after Ata raises an army (and navy) to fight against her husband. Lightning, the Circle’s Archer and Comet’s best friend, allies himself with Ata having long resented Mist being the ruler of land that used to be in Lightning’s family. Comet has to try and reign in Lightning and Ata and get them to fight the Insects instead, while simultaneously providing unwilling assistance in Lightning’s wooing of Swallow Awnydyn. Swallow is a mortal governor of a small town and probably the best musician in the history of the Fourlands. However, after the Emperor decrees that only skills useful to the war qualify someone to become an immortal she embarks on an ill-advised military expedition to try and lift the Insect’s siege of Lowespass fortress, with Lightning and Comet providing unwilling support.
As you can probably see, the plot and setting are extremely original – apart from some similarities between the Insects and the Locusts in M.John Harrison’s “A Storm Of Wings” there is nothing else even remotely like this book. It is fascinatingly strange, while still being comprehensible. The land may be very different but the characters are easy to relate to, just trying to go about normal-ish lives in very abnormal circumstances. The main character, Comet, is particularly charismatic despite his serious failings, and his witty commentary on just about everything is one of the novel’s highlights.
The writing is superb, sometimes surreal, sometimes ominous, sometimes highly amusing. Each chapter seems to have at least one brilliantly-constructed, highly quotable sentence or phrase – usually provided by Comet.
Probably the only criticism that can be made of this book is that the plot does seem a bit aimless at times. A lot of the time the book gets distracted from the war against the Insects, and even the looming civil war between the immortals. While Comet’s reminiscing over past events and his escapades in Epsilon are highly entertaining, they sometimes seem to have little relevance to the main plot. Also, the ending is rushed and the book end far too abruptly. Swainston builds up a fascinating plot, and then ties everything up neatly in a handful of chapters which is slightly unsatisfying.
This is an excellent novel, and seems to herald the arrival of a major new talent on the fantasy scene.
Rating : 8½ / 10