Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Year of Our War - Steph Swainston

Earlier this year I read Steph Swainston's short story The Wheel of Fortune, which has recently appeared in Dutch translation. It was my introduction to the world of Castle. While a short story can't possibly convey all the nuances of Swainston's creation, it was more than enough to convince me to try a full novel. The individual titles in the Castle trilogy are a bit hard to come by at the moment, but an omnibus edition is readily available. Besides the trilogy there is a fourth book called Above the Snowline (2010) available. A fifth novel, Fair Rebel,  is expected later this year. In an interview I did with her earlier this year, Swainston confirmed that she is working on a sixth Castle novel.

Jant is a member of the Circle, a group of immortals lead by the emperor, tasked with watching over the world until the creator returns. His role is that of the Messenger. Being the only immortal capable of flight, he uses his wings to get around the world quickly, delivering messages and reporting on what he sees. The world has come under increasing pressure from an insect invasion. Where previously they seemed content behind their wall, recently they have been pushing deeper into lands held by humanoid species. Their advance seems unstoppable and soon it becomes clear the insects won't stop until they've colonised the entire world. On top of that threat, Castle has to deal with internal conflicts as well. As the insects advance, Jant becomes ever more desperate to find a way to defeat them and restore some semblance of order in the world.

Although the author doesn't particularly care for this label, Swainston's novels have often been characterized as New Weird. Whatever you may think of that, her books  are definitely not run-of-the-mill fantasy. The world is populated by several humanoid species and interbreeding is possible. The technology level in the novel is mostly fairly modern but such things as internal combustion engines and gunpowder (or other heavy explosives) are missing. Wars therefore, are still fought with swords, pikes and crossbows and transport depends on horses and sailing ships. I had to adjust my mental image of what this world looked like several times because of this curious mix of older and modern technology.

The book is written in the first person. We see the entire story through the eyes of Jant. He is something of an anti-hero. Where in The Wheel of Fortune, set chronologically some two centuries before the bulk of The Year of Our War, Jant is just dealing drugs, by the time we meet him again, he is heavily addicted. The only thing that has saved him from an overdose is the fact that he is immortal. At times, his constant craving for his next shot makes him intensely annoying and rather pathetic. On the other hand he is well aware of what is going on in the world and, while not always completely voluntary, he does put his life on the line during the insect onslaught in more ways than most of his compatriots are aware of. He has, in other words, quite a complicated personality. Some readers might be put off by the whiny side of him and his constant worries about where his next shot will come from. I thought it was a very good bit of characterization though.

Deeply flawed yet heroic is a pattern we see with other immortals as well. Swainston portrays them as larger than life. They assume a kind of Olympic quality if you will. There is a definite parallel between Jant and Hermes in fact. The immortals' internal bickering sends shock waves through the world and ends up killing a great many people. The members of Castle are very human in some respects. Pettiness, power struggles and jealousy are part of every day life at the court of the emperor.The various currents at court adds to the complexity of the tale and gives the world more depth. Throughout the novel there are hints of the politics in the various nations as well, leaving quite a bit to be explored in further novels.

While I liked the worldbuilding and what Swainston does with the main character, structurally it is not a particularly strong novel. Not to put too fine a point on it, it rambles along here and there. Swainston uses flashbacks to give us an impression of Jant's past in some places that do more to disrupt the flow of the story set in the present than enlighten us. Throughout the story you can also feel the strain of having only one point of view character. Jant is constantly lost in the fog of war. Events in some places in the world simply outpace Jant and he frequently  has to adjust to developments he neither foresaw or was present to witness. It's reasonable when looked at from Jant's point of view but for the reader it is not always a satisfying experience. I also felt that the ending of the novel was fairly abrupt and left an awful lot of story lines open for the next volume.

In some ways The Year of Our War is a rocky start to the trilogy, but also one that shows a lot of potential. The setting is absolutely unique and after reading this book you can't possibly not want to learn more. The story is a dark one, but it doesn't overly rely on shock tactics to keep the reader's attention. Swainston is clearly interested in the darker side of human nature and her main character is a big part of that. His addiction and personality make him a character that is guaranteed to provoke a reaction in the reader. Probably not a positive one in all readers but if you can stomach a main character you can't always sympathise with, he is bound to take you for quite a ride. I'll be reading the second volume in the not too distant future to see where he will lead us and of course to find out if he can get the monkey off his back.

Book Details
Title: The Year of Our War, part one of the Castle Omnibus
Author: Steph Swainston
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 267 of 867
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-09125-2
First published: 2004

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