Monday, June 12, 2017

Tempo - Steph Swainston

Note: this text is only available in Dutch translation. I am not aware of any plans to publish it in English.

In September 2016, I read Het Rad van Fortuin, the first story written by Steph Swainston of the Splinters series. Splinters are thin paperbacks published by Dutch publisher Quasis one can read in an hour or so. Most of them are written by local talent but some are translations. They are just long enough to give the reader a good impression of an author's style and talent, and evoke a sense of curiosity in the reader about the author's other work. In Swainston's case it worked quite well. Het Rad van Fortuin was the first piece I read by Swainston. Since picking it up, I read four of her novels. When I heard a second Splinter from Swainston was about to be released, I just had to go fishing for a review copy. The publisher kindly provided me with one.

In Het Rad van Fortuin, we are shown a young Jant, one of the main characters in Swainston's Castle series. For this story she chooses a different character. Saker is the immortal Archer, serving emperor San in his fight against the insects. He is scarred by battle, but perhaps even more by his turbulent love life. In this story, he looks back fifteen centuries, on his first major romance, and on the day his jealous older brother tried to put him in his place during a high stakes chariot race.

Games, in some shape or other, are a staple of fantasy. The climax of Raymond E. Feist's first novel Magician is set during elaborate gladiatorial combat, and George R.R. Martin describes jousting tournaments frequently in his ongoing A Song of Ice and Fire series. Chariot races, the subject Swainston tackles here, are also well trodden territory. In The Birthgrave, the novel that would be her breakthrough, Tannish Lee describes a particularly hazardous variety. Guy Gavriel Kay even wrote a duology massively influenced by the culture surrounding the chariot races in Byzantium.

There is a good reason chariot races keep coming back in fantasy. They make for very exciting action scenes. Tempo is no exception to that. The young Saker is a bit of a hothead and he is in love on top of that. It is easy to manipulate him into a situation where he might easily lose his life. Swainston is not just aiming for an exciting scene though. What the story really is about is accepting the consequences of immortality. The love he pursues is one with a huge social taboo attached to it. Do you want to carry that with you for eternity? Is living forever worth losing a lover over?  They are facing hard choices indeed.

Saker as the main character is the perfect choice for this story. In the books we get to see him as a bit of a tragic figure, bent by the burden of his immortality. In this story, he is young, rash, stubborn and a bit cocky. We can already see the outline of his larger than life presence in the Castle though. His tendency to get himself involved in all sorts of dramatic events is clearly present. It fits perfectly with what we know of him from the novels.

Like Het Rad van Fortuin, Tempo can be read on its own, but it clearly invites the reader to dig further into Swainston's work. The dilemma Saker faces is the centre of a nicely contained story. For the reader who is more familiar with Swainston's writing, there are plenty of details that link the story to the wider world of Castle. Given the idea behind the Splinters series, Tempo is a success. It reminded me that I really ought to dig up a copy of Above the Snowline, the only novel Swainston has published I haven't read yet.

Book Details
Title: Tempo
Author: Steph Swainston
Publisher: Quasis
Pages: 42
Year: 2017
Language: Dutch
Translation: Jasper Polane and Pen Stewart
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-94-92099-26-6
First published: 2017

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