Sunday, August 7, 2016

No Present Like Time - Steph Swainston

A Dutch edition of Steph Swainston's short story The Wheel of Fortune was my introduction to her writing. I decided quickly I needed to read more of her work after that, so I got a copy of the Castle trilogy. The books were originally published as individual volumes but I own the omnibus edition. I decided to review them separately rather than as one work. No Present Like Time is the second volume in the trilogy. It is set some time after the events in The Year of Our War and again follows the exploits of Jant, Messenger of the Circle. The novel was published in 2005 and was followed in 2007 by a third volume, The Modern World in the UK and Dangerous Offspring in the US, which I hope to get to later this year.

The war with the insects is far from won, but the immediate crisis Jant faced in the previous book has passed. That is not to say everything is quiet in the Castle. Infighting, bickering and challenges to positions of various members of the circle are constant pressures on the immortals. When the Castle's swordsman looses a challenge all hell breaks loose. To make matters more complicated, the Sailor has recently discovered a group of islands inhabited by a displaced population from the Fourlands. The emperor wishes to extend his influence and sends an expedition to meet with the locals. Jant is ordered along. He will have to conquer his fear of ships and the sea to make the journey. It's an experience with far reaching consequences for both Jant and the Castle.

In the previous novel, Jant was a full blown addict and the structure of the story showed that. It was basically a series of coherent snapshots in between trips. On the one hand it is a great way to express the experience of someone drawn so deeply into addiction but on the other, it made the story a bit of a ramble. At the beginning of this book, Jant is clean. He quickly slips back into dependency when he is faced with one of his biggest fears though. It's a pretty hard relapse but, despite the occasional overdose, Jant doesn't sink to the depths he reached in the first book. All of this does the narrative structure of the book a world of good. Swainston does use frequent flashbacks, but on the whole the story flows more smoothly than The Year of Our War.

The archipelago Jant visited has been out of touch with the rest of the world for some 1500 years. It has developed a peaceful society, led by a senate in a way that reminded me of the Roman republic. After such a long time, stories of insects and the emperor San are considered myths and the locals abhor the idea of one man wielding that much power. The confrontation between Castle and the islanders is comparable with what happens when a technological advanced civilization meets one that is less so. It is messy, bloody and the situation is not exactly improved when a third party decides to take advantage of the islanders' naivete.

Jant also gives us more insight into the psyche of an immortal. He thinks much on how they are ruled by fear. As we are shown in the opening scenes of the book and as the title of the book suggests, immortality is a gift that can be taken away in a moment. The pressure to keep on top of your game, and if possible to rig it in your favour is always present and to a point twists the immortals. What I found most interesting about this, and Swainston does hint at it in the book, is what happens when technology overtakes them. What good is a sailor in an age of steamships. Or a swordsman facing a gun? Or a messenger when they invent the telegraph. I wonder if Swainston is going to look into that in subsequent books. Given the level of technology in the book it is possible.

Another internal struggle for Jant is the one with his past. We get a number of flashbacks to scenes from his youth. In one of them we even find out what happened to him on the road to Castle after we leave him at the end of The Wheel of Fortune. He has, to put it mildly, had an interesting childhood. We also get a bit of backstory on how he met his current wife and why their relationship is strained at the moment. It's in this area Swainston really pushes Jant's character development. To untangle the web of dependencies, resentment and desire proves to be quite a challenge.

Between the internal struggles and the exploring being done in this book, there isn't that much happening in the centuries long war against the insects. They play a minor part in the story. In fact, we only get to see one of them. That particular specimen is destructive enough though. Jant may have brought victory a bit closer with one of his decisions towards the end of the book. The emperor doesn't appear to be pleased with his judgement though. He may even have reason to worry.

I enjoyed this second book more than the first. Where the frayed threads of Jant's life make for a bumpy ride in the first novel, this book reads a lot more smoothly. He has a bit more time to reflect on the state of the world, giving the reader a lot more insight into what is actually going on. Swainston leaves quite a lot dangling for the final volume. It has plenty of potential to be a proper climax to the series. I can see all sorts of directions in which Swainston could take the story. Swainston has not only created a fascinating world, she also keeps her readers guessing. How many fantasy novels can you think of that are truly unpredictable? I can't think of many. This sense of unpredictability is perhaps the series' greatest achievement.

Book Details
Title: No Present Like Time, part two of the Castle Omnibus
Author: Steph Swainston
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 294 of 867
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-09125-2
First published: 2005

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