With her debut novel Steph Swainston establishes a canvas with unlimited possibilities for future tales in the setting, while offering a sequence of events within the novel that both fulfills upon completion, and leaves you wondering just in which direction she will take her successive works, without being able to think of any choice that would come near to disappoint.
The Four Lands are in a constant state of war as the inhabitants of the three southern lands, Awia, Plainsland, and Morenzia are in a perpetual tug-of-war match with the Insectoid inhabitants of the North, called the Paper Lands. Ms. Swainston populates the Four Lands with a human population that offers variety, and are made unique by evolutionary differences between the inhabitants of the largely different ecosystems and environments her setting offers. Each of these groups share common cause against the Insects, however are given vastly different customs, both social and in regards to economic strengths and weaknesses.
The different strengths of certain populations are noted by one of the most interesting concepts regarding Swainston’s world and that is the Circle. The land is indeed governed by the various heads of local governments however all bodies recognize the authority (and mostly positively) of the Circle. The denizens of the Circle are based in what is simply called The Castle, the seat of power in the land, and carries with it an always welcome Mervyn Peake influence, is home of the immortal Emperor San. The Emperor is not the only immortal however, he grants immortality to fifty others (his Circle), in which he chooses the most adept at different valuable skills and freezes them in their age. Members of this coterie for example include the greatest Archer, Swordsman, Sailor and so on. There are three ways to join this club dubbed the Escazi, an entry only the Emperor can bestow and also remove — the gift of immortality. One is to be chosen by the San himself, the other is to marry a current member of the Circle, and the other is by challenging a current member (also by San’s approval). The existence of the Circle and its means of membership of course provide some very intriguing and even clandestine possibilities. I know what you’re thinking; The Immortal Circle is a fabulous idea!
Swainston chooses one of the members of the Circle as our eyes to her imaginative world, “the Messenger of the Gods” Jant Shira. Swainston employs a first person narrative, and absolutely succeeds in bringing Jant to life. One of the strengths of the novel is the fact that the Escazi are drawn from the population, and the gift of immortality doesn’t cause any of the members to automatically lose any preexisting qualities they had prior. They are not Gods, they are people, and capable of the same weaknesses in character, or any other limitations of any other beings, excluding ageing. Jant is among other things, a half-breed, described as a comely, and like many denizens of the Four Lands he has wings. The difference is he is the only one that can fly. Not interested yet? By the way, he is also a former drug pusher, and current junkie, loves his wife, and yet is a womanizer as well. It is through Jant we see the crisis in the Four Lands occur.
The King has fallen and the Insects, seemingly infinite in number, invade. San gives the task of solving the mystery of the Insects to Jant who accomplishes this by both relaying messages from other members of Circle, the mortal kingdoms and the Emperor, and by participating in numerous battles as well. It is the mandate given to him by San that Swainston uses to introduce another one of the strongest features of The Year of Our War and that is the alternate dimension, an “after life” in some circumstances which can be entered by “shifting”, which Jant accomplishes by overdosing on his drug of choice, “scat”. Along with the advent of the Circle, the Shift is just an incredible element by Swainston that only adds to the aforementioned possibilities she can take, not only in this novel, but in future works. The narrative sequences in the novel can be broken down into three primary segments that Swainston weaves in a way that gives the novel its decidedly surreal feel.
The first is Jant and other members of the Circle try to defeat the insect invasion, the second is Jan’s various visits in the shift, and the third I enjoyed the most, Jant’s flashback, telling us one portion of his past and upbringing, and then allowing us to believably witness the product he has become in the present. Swainston depicts Jant’s childhood activities in a Dickensian backdrop showcasing a deprived, tough, street urchin who as truly enough counts many times his ability to run to be one of his assets he is most fortuitous to posses. The flashback segments are some of the most vivid, and as I mentioned before, my favorite portions of The Year of Our War. It is here where we lean the origin of both the admirable qualities, and the faults of the narrator. These three distinctly different venues allow Swainston to display all of her talents. She is able to write about large-scale battles, and political and social maneuvering in the Four Lands; she is able with the “Shift” to give her work that “New Weird” surreal appeal, and the Jant’s flashbacks offer her to display her abilities and to add to the novels content of dark, gritty, realism.
Yes I said “New Weird”, and to traditionalists this is a instant turn off, however it shouldn’t be (and not just for the normal reasons either like great prose, creativity, and depth), The Year of Our War is much more accessible in my opinion to fans of traditional fantasy than many other examples I have read in the past. Where I can see some fans not being able to make the immediate connection with Mieville’s rather daunting prose and verbose style, I think some elements Swainston uses provides enough of a comfort level for such fans. Since I mentioned Mieville he has a quote on the cover of The Year of Our War:
“THOUGHTFUL, EXUBERANT, INCREDIBLY INVENTIVE: A BLISTERING DEBUT, AND HONEST-TO-GOD UNPUTDOWNABLE”– CHINA MIEVILLE
Swainston is clever with her prose but in a way that translates more easily on the pages. Swainston provides a setting that although cannot be described as overtly medieval, it is decidedly less technologically advanced than our own, and one that evolved rather believably especially when one considers the implications of a world that evolved in the presence of an institution like the Circle of Immortals.
I also rather enjoyed Ms. Swainston’s even depiction of female characters. She provides female characters of many degrees of personalities. From the ambitious Ata challenging her husband’s position among the Circle, to the prodigious musical talent of Swallow, who Swainston nicely displays that although she is a genius in regards to music she still shows the indecisiveness and stubbornness that can be attributed to her age. Swainston also uses Swallow to give us insight on what the Emperor considers of import when making decisions regarding those petitioning to be immortal. In The Shift we are introduced to another character, the Captain of the Guard, who is depicted as female and seems capable of making even the immortal cringe; while also showing a domestic aspect of Jant through his wife Tern. A real variety here, for example The Year of Our War shows examples of both women in triumphant roles, and a woman getting raped (although due to unique customs not a completely one of the vulgar variety).
Regarding some aspects that I felt weren’t as strong as I expect in her next work No Present Like Time, I really didn’t feel to enamoured with the entire Invasion scenes with the Insects, which is a minor complaint when there so much to like about this novel. From what I have seen I think this detraction is often twisted to something more than necessary. It is a mistake in my opinion to define the plot of this novel as mainly the conflict with the Insects. If one does this, I agree one would have a reason to gripe, however, they are completely missing the point. The Year of Our War is more aptly a telling of Jant’s activities during a period of a time where the invasion occurred, and how past and present elements in his life motivated his actions and decisions he both made and didn’t make in the novel. It’s more of how external events molded him than the reverse, which without doubt presents more realism if not a surplus of displays of heroic gallantry. I also want to put down another detraction that I have been hearing regarding the depth of secondary characters, or the perceived lack there of. Although I am certainly a huge advocate of depth in terms of characterization, especially in secondary characters, I don’t understand how some can complain about the lack of this contained in a novel that is written in a first person narrative. This by definition limits a reader’s access to the insights and observations of a single character. After all, Jant albeit immortal, is not omniscient (not to mention much of time he is either under the influence of Cat or suffering from withdrawal) and as such is generally only privy to what those around him exude openly. The detraction is simply based in absurdity.
The Year of Our War is a more than solid debut, establishing a basis for more intriguing opportunities than any other recent introduction has provided. Admittedly it doesn’t fall into the traditional fantasy category, but as I mentioned before it’s more accessible to fans of such work than many other non-traditional fantasy efforts. A delightfully surreal adventure, an example of a flawless depiction of a flawed narrator and offers something promising.