Sunday, November 27, 2016

Fair Rebel - Steph Swainston

After a six year break, the fifth novel in Steph Swainston's Castle setting appears this month. Her previous novel, Above the Snowline (2010), is a prequel to the Castle trilogy. Fair Rebel continues the story of the trilogy. It is set some fifteen years after The Modern World (2007). Readers can pick up this novel without having read Above the Snowline. The novel reads like Swainston never really left Fourlands. It is a seamless continuation of the story and I think most readers will agree it was more than worth the wait. Swainston is clearly not done with her creation. She leaves us with a bit of a cliffhanger and the promise of a sixth novel in the making.

A decade and a half after the disastrous attempt to flood the insects out of an area of paper covered land, Castle is ready to go on the offensive again. This time with a new weapon. Gunpowder has been introduced, and with it a whole range of destructive weapons. In an attempt to gain ground on the insects, a plan is devised involving large quantities of the new explosive. Just when the trap is about to be sprung, it becomes clear that a significant portion of the gunpowder is not in the barrels it was supposed to be in. While the offensive grinds to a halt, Jant is sent out to investigate. He soon finds the trail of a conspiracy that threatens the foundations of Castle's power, and with it the worlds most powerful defence against the insects.

The novel opens with a scene that, although the technology is still a bit behind, reminded me of the western front battle fields in World War I. The use of artillery barrages and mining is very reminiscent of some of the huge battles that took place a century ago. The technological mismatch adds an element though. Fourland's armies are still in the process of figuring out the best strategies to match their new firepower, which older technology can still be applied effectively, and how to overcome the disadvantages of gunpowder and spherical musket balls. It's another example of how different levels of technology are woven into the narrative without appearing to be out of place. it is something that continually impressed me over the course of the series.

Although the opening of the novel echoes battles a century old, Fair Rebel is a book very much influenced by recent events. What Jant stumbles upon is in essence a terrorist campaign. Swainston shows us in the novel how a determined person can use the fault lines in society caused by economic inequality, discrimination and racism and tap into bottled up feelings of resentment, jealousy and hatred to unleash terrible violence. Swainston has never been easy on her characters or the bystanders that get caught in the crossfire, but this novel features some of the most brutal events in the series.

Terrorism, if the media and politicians are to be believed, is the great evil of our time. The senseless killing over political or religious differences, often including many who happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time is considered an act of supreme evil. And yet, it is perpetrated be people who, despite all their misguided actions, have feelings, loved ones and dreams. Swainston could have chosen to let Jant battle a faceless evil but chooses not to do so. Instead, the main terrorist in the novel is given a point of view. We get to see their motivations and how events affect them. What Swainston does in this novel is uncomfortably close to many events occurring in the world today. Anger and violence toppling power structures without regard for the damage it causes and without a plan for what comes after. She makes it look irrational but understandable all the same.

The other side of the story is of course the temptation to go along with the hatred, fear and suspicion offered by the terrorist. It is tempting to generalize, to suspect whole segments of the population, and to deepen the rift by taking sweeping action against the terrorists. Centuries of life experience clearly does not make the immortals immune to this temptation. The spiral of suspicion, hate and violence is laid out clearly in the book. One does not have to look far in the real world to see this happening.

Swainston also continues to make us doubt the main characters. Seen from the secondary point of view, Jant is a terrible character. He is viewed with a mix of awe, fear and contempt. He has become more comfortable with his power and is ruthless when dealing with his enemies. A rather sharp contrast to the self-doubting, whining addict he can be when seen from his point of view. Emperor San himself is not free of suspicion either. At the end of The Modern World an entity known as the Vermiform accuses him of not developing Fourland's resources to their full potential and of trying to maintain a status quo with the insects. The sudden appearance of gunpowder soon after, seems to indicate that accusation stung. After facing off with the Vermiform, San doesn't seem as distantly all knowing as he did in the previous books. That Olympic quality he (and many of the immortals) started out with has tarnished. He looks like a tyrant. And, what's worse, downright vulnerable.

I did feel Swainston leaves us hanging a bit in the final chapters of the novel. While one part of the story is resolved, a rather large cliffhanger is left to deal with in the next volume. If that sort of thing doesn't bother you, Fair Rebel is a very good read. It is probably the fastest paced of the Castle novels I have read so far. It is one of those books where you just have to read the next volume to see how the story continues. After four novels, many fantasy worlds begin to feel familiar. There clearly is much more to explore in Fourlands though. I eagerly await the next novel to see what else Swainston has in store for us.

Book Details
Title: Fair Rebel
Author: Steph Swainston
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 322
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-081697
First published: 2016

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