Sunday, January 10, 2016

Het Rad van Fortuin - Steph Swainston

I don't often read works translated from English to Dutch anymore. Generally I prefer to read the original. In this case however, I had to make an exception. Het Rad van Fortuin is an expansion of Steph Swainston's short story The Wheel of Fortune, that appeared in the anthology The Best British Fantasy 2013. As far as I can tell, the expanded version has not been published in English (yet). The translation was done by Eisso Post. The text reads smoothly, I didn't find any obvious lines in the text where he struggled with the translation. Without having read the original, the translation strikes me as a job well done.

Jant works for an apothecary in the city of Hacilith. As a little business on the side, he produces a highly addictive substance made out of a species of fern. It brings him in contact with the leader of a local gang, who besides being hopelessly addicted to Jant's product, also fancies him. When he inevitably gets into serious trouble with the gang he decides to give the wheel of fortune a spin. Together with the down on her luck actress Serin, he tries to leave the city.

Het Rad van Fortuin is a prequel to Swainston's Castle novels, in which Jant is the main character. I haven't read these novels so this story was my introduction to this world. Swainston is often associated with the new weird genre. The reason for this gradually becomes clear over the course of the story. The setting is an early industrial one, with references to many of the environmental and social problems of the era. Magical elements and non-human races are mentioned in the story as well though. It is a mix of elements that is pretty much impossible to classify and that is one of the things that makes this story intriguing.

Swainston is not afraid to show the dark side of society. Her depiction of drug use, crime, poverty and violence are graphic. Jant's world is raw, dirty and dangerous. It is the type of secondary world narrative that borrows a page from the grimdark authors that have gained popularity in the past decade. The main character is a reflection of his environment in a way. He is a deeply flawed man. The story hints at a difficult past. He is not above dealing drugs to improve his situation, without the knowledge of his employer. On the other hand he does take in Serin and helps her back on her feet. He has ambitions beyond his current job and is ruthless when it comes to getting where he wants to be. A dark character for sure, possibly a conflicted one,  but not an entirely unlikeable man. You can already tell that this combination of traits will get him in even more trouble in the novels.

Dutch publisher Quasis has released Het Rad van Fortuin as a paperback booklet as part of their Splinters series. Quasis is a small, young publisher. According to a statement on their website they are looking for speculative fiction that crosses boundaries in form, theme or genre. It looks to me like a reaction to the somewhat conservative larger publishers of fantasy (sf is virtually non-existent in translation) in the Netherlands. They play it safe and as a result a lot of not very challenging and fairly standard fantasy is being published. The reader who wants more challenging or experimental material is almost required to read in English.

As an introduction to her Castle setting, this story works very well. There is enough plot and worldbuilding to make it a story that can stand on its own. Between the lines it is obvious that the story is part of a larger whole. There are references to events that, if I'm not mistaken, drive the plot of the novel. It's a story that made me very curious about the larger world and how Jant is going to realize his goals. It also succeeds in a goal the publisher sets itself. Swainston's story is a unique mix of subgenres. The story hints at a larger and very imaginative setting that shows you can push the fantastic in different directions than the post-Tolkien material that dominates the Dutch market. Het Rad van Fortuin is a success on two levels. It has convinced me to try one of Swainston's novels and to keep an eye out for what  Quasis decides to publish next.

Book Details
Title: Het Rad van Fortuin
Author: Steph Swainston
Publisher: Quasis
Pages: 48
Year: 2015
Language: Dutch
Translation: Eisso Post
Format: E-arc
ISBN: 978-94-92099-05-1
First published: 2013, 2015

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