There are a bewildering quantity of books to borrow from even the smallest library, so I (along with most people, I suppose) tend to choose which book to borrow based on recommendations and having heard of the author. Sometimes, I feel sad for all those books in the library that don’t meet these criteria, so I pick one up at random and cursorily check whether it might be the kind of thing that I would like to read.
It was for this sort of reason that the encomium was born.
On the back cover of Steph Swainston’s novel, The Year of Our War, I found China Miéville telling me that it was ‘honest-to-god unputdownable’ and Richard Morgan claiming that it will ‘set the whole genre reading’. Fair enough.
In a fairly generic (for the most part — characters wear jeans and t-shirts and read tabloids with page three girls) fantasyland, the spread of the Insects’ paper cities is being only just kept in check by the combined efforts of lordly types (or their armies anyway), plus the skill and inspiration provided by the Circle of immortals. These 50 immortals are granted their infinitely long life by the equally immortal Emperor after he decides that he likes the cut of their jib. Each immortal has a particular (martially relevant) skill. If one dies (which takes a bit of doing), someone new is selected to take up their role. Alternatively, a mortal can supplant an incumbent by beating them in a contest of skill. The underlying mechanics of all this immortality business is left obscure.
Jant (200 years old), the most recent Messenger and our protagonist, got his job by being able to fly. One of the four main races of the book is winged, but they’re a bit too heavy for flight. Jant, however, is of mixed parentage, and through a fortunate twist of genetic fate, inherited a much lighter body than the norm. Clearly, such inter-racial affairs must be strongly frowned upon; I’m sure if such a thing were possible in our own world we’d have a multitude of parents trying to get themselves an effectively super-powered child.
Jant is a serious drug addict and Swainston, while no Will Self, does an excellent job of depicting the kinds of behaviours and thought processes that come with serious drug addiction (hiding stashes, searching for a vein, etc.). I firmly approve of this, and as was also the case for The Steel Remains, I’m delighted to encounter grown-up tropes and grown-up conflict when reading fantasy. All was not perfect though. Her descriptions are technically accurate, well researched, and elegantly integrated into the plot, but I feel that if the main character of a novel has a dysfunctional, even life-threatening, addiction, it should be reflected in the style and tone of the prose. Instead, sentences are light — almost in a comic mode. It’s tricky, though; although I would have liked a bit of despair, a glimpse of the psychological maelstrom, this simply isn’t the book for it. In terms of plot, too, the use of addiction here just didn’t seem to add as much punch as it could have. I feel like I should have been squirming as disaster follows disaster due to the pathetic drug-addled incapacity of the Emperor’s messenger. While there is a bit of conflict in this vein, it’s not particularly compelling and nothing that goes wrong is really Jant’s fault. Likewise, instead of disintegrating relationships, there’s just a bit of ‘tut-tut’ing from friends. Ultimately, while I applaud Swainston for tackling addiction, I must question whether this was the right place to do so.
Problems of balance are also to found in Jant’s character. At times he’s presented as a a genius, warrior, and all ’round übermensch, while at others he’s a goofy coward. For example, there’s a scene where he is bested in combat by a woman who goes on to describe how she could slice through his spine as he lies on the ground. His response? ‘Eeep!’ This problem of characterisation was further exacerbated by Swainston’s decision to use the first person. It’s rare that I’m entirely happy with first-person prose, and this isn’t the worst example by a long way, but there were still a couple of points where I was jarred by Jant referring to his own hard muscles (or words to that effect).
Regarding plot: Unbeknownst to himself, Jant inadvertantly upsets the delicate balance of power between the diverse human races and the Insects. Alongside the catastrophic spread of the Insects’ territory (which Jant must try to find a solution for), there’s some not very helpful conflict within the Circle. There is an aspect of Swainston’s world building that seems for much of the novel to be entirely random, but which later turns out to be quite important to solving this Insect problem — The Shift. The Shift is a dreamworld full of strange races that Jant can access for a short time when he overdoses. In fact, there are a couple of characters who live there permanently after having died of an overdose in Jant’s world. While in this world, Jant effectively has two bodies: one loosely holding a needle and lying on a bed in a castle somewhere, the other getting up to high jinks in the Shift. I was fine with this until it transpired that the Shift is basically another world somewhere in the multiverse. It is possible to travel from one to the other; that is, you leave one world (e.g., Jant’s) and appear in the other (e.g., the Shift). That would be fine too, except that it doesn’t align with the astral projection (or similar) mechanism that allows Jant to be in both worlds at the same time. Perhaps I’m being pedantic, but the fact that both modes of travel exist side by side seems messy and metaphysically awkward.
…and that’s why I have a blog.
So, in conclusion: It’s a fun novel that’s light, fairly short, and easy to read. It’s got some good action scenes, some interesting world building, and a couple of engaging and innovative angles. I would, however, like to see another fantasy novel — one that’s darker and more psychologically dense — have another stab at dealing directly with addiction, drug abuse, and the consequences thereof.
Sounds like it’ll be a laugh a minute…