Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Modern World - Steph Swainston

The Modern World (2007)  is the third volume in Steph Swainston's Castle series. It was published as Dangerous Offspring in the US. That title has a nice double meaning to it but it is also a bit of a spoiler, I think I prefer the UK title. In November a new Castle novel, Fair Rebel,  will appear that continues the story of Castle's struggle against the insects. It's probably a good thing I arrived late to this series. While the novel has a strong story arc of its own, it leaves the reader with some very interesting questions to be answered as well. Arriving late saved me a nine years wait. For those who did have to wait, the synopsis released for Fair Rebel hints at getting at least some of the answers in that book.

Castle has been on the defensive against the insects for most of the many centuries they have spent fighting them. Frost, Castle's architect, has now found a way to push them back. By constructing a large dam, a recently lost area is flooded in hopes of driving the insects out. This offensive is hailed in the media as a turning point in their struggle. A triumph of technology over the insects and the beginning of a campaign to reclaim the lost lands. Victory, so the reporters are told, is almost assured. Nobody seems to realize that flooding a large area of insect infested land is in fact a monumentally stupid thing to do. Until it is too late.

The novel opens with a fine bit of Castle propaganda and public perception is definitely a theme in this book. How the population sees Castle and the emperor himself is hugely important to the characters and playing the media is one tool in Castle's arsenal. It's one of those areas where Swainston's world is very modern, a huge contrast with its military technology. The press conference is one in a series of scenes in the novel where characters misdirect, mislead or tell bald faced lies. Lying, misleading, manipulating, -  being immortal doesn't make one a better person it would seem.

The novel has two main narrative strands. The first deals with the insects and Castle's attempt to push them back. It quickly turns into the largest military operation Fourlands has ever seen. Swainston makes sure the reader understands the enormous strain being placed on Castle and Fourlands as a whole in mounting such a huge campaign. It is such an enormous undertaking that some see it as a sign of the end of times. Especially when the emperor leaves Castle for the first time in ages. The focus is as much on what it takes to field such an army as it is on the actual fighting. The way Swainston describes just how unwieldy such a large force is, and how devastating the consequences of a wrong move can be, is impressive.

Despite my admiration for Swainston's grasp of logistics, I thought the second strand the more interesting of the two. Internal conflicts in Fourlands are a theme throughout the books and The Modern World is no exception. In this case the main source of conflict is the troubled relationship between Lightning, Castle's archer, and his mortal daughter Cyan. One has lived well over a thousand years, the other is seventeen. You can't even say it is a generational conflict, they are ages apart. It is telling that Jant, who at just over two centuries old considers himself young for an immortal, can more easily see things from Cyan's perspective than from that of one of his fellow Castle members.

Of course this connection with Cyan also tells us a bit about his character. She may have some legitimate complaints about how she is raised, that doesn't take away from the fact that she is a spoilt brat, and a rather clueless one at that. She probably appeals to Jant's rebellious streak. The eventual resolution of the conflict should make him think though. In the end his actions surprise them all. It leaves Jant with one of several complicated questions to consider at the end of the book.

Some five years have passed since the events in No Present Like Time (2005) and Jant, while still clean, is still feeling the pull of the drug he was addicted to. Swainston again shows us almost the entire novel from his perspective - one chapter is seen from Lightning's perspective - and in a few places conveys the message to the reader he is an unreliable narrator. It's a constant in these three books but what is different about The Modern World is that we get to see a number of characters very bluntly speak their mind. Jant is fairly accepting of the structure of Castle and his place in it. Perhaps even to the point of ignoring the oddities in the emperor's decisions. Sometimes an outsider perspective can be refreshing indeed.

Castle is not quite what it appears to be seems to be the message of this book. Don't believe everything you are told. Don't take things at face value. Swainston makes us question just about everything we think we know about Castle and Fourlands. There obviously is a lot more to this tale, which makes it all the more surprising that the author went on to write a prequel about Jant's early years next. You can feel Castle is at a turning point, even if it takes a while for the full impact to be felt. The Modern World deepens the reader's understanding of Fourlands and Castle in ways neither of the previous two books did. It is without a doubt my favourite of the three novels in this omnibus.

Book Details
Title: The Modern World, part three of the Castle Omnibus
Author: Steph Swainston
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 302 of 867
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-09125-2
First published: 2007

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