Sunday, September 27, 2009

Year of Our War



The Year of Our War
Steph Swainston
(2004)

This book has single-handedly grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and dragged me solidly over into the territories of contemporary fantasy. I had wanted to read Mieville's Perdido Street Station and was curious about the New Weird writers (Vandermeer and Harrison, specifically, though Swainston and Mieville count towards this group as well), but picked up Swainston first because I was interested in reading something not written by a dude for a change (also a big factor in reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell).

The Year of Our War opens with some fantastic combat prose, think the Illiad infused with modern tactics and logistics, of humans and Awians (flightless humans with vestigal wings) against a horde of insects told from the perspective of Jant, the Emperor's Messenger.

Jant can fly, you see. He's half Awian and half Rhydanne, a sort of cat-people from the mountains that have a slender physique and a lightweight build which make the otherwise useless Awian wings suddenly functional. Jant is also immortal, by which I mean he can't age, but can be killed, by virtue of being a member of the Emperor's circle. Certain individuals, by being the best at certain things – the best messenger, the best archer, etcetera, are granted immortality by the Emperor and get to live at Castle and assist the nations of the Fourlands against their common enemy, the insects. Jant also has a problem with needles.

A crucial mortal leader dies in combat with the insects, setting off a chain reactions of events that brings the confederated nations to the brink of war with each other and annihaltion by the insects And the thing is, its kind of the circle's fault, since immortality is bequeathed on a set of skills specific to combating the insect hordes, the aforementioned slain mortal leader meets his end going overboard trying to catch the Emperor's attention so he can win immortality.

The entire book is full of these sort of complications, but is also bereft of exposition. History and world building, socio-political critiques, Jant's drug problem, all of these are dropped at the reader in the narrative. So the plot carries one along at a quite rapid pace while leaving in its wake a vibrant and rich setting. Swainston gives us the double thrill of a bang-bang-bang plot and the wonder of world-building at the same time. The Year of Our War is a true treat and I recommend it whole-heartedly.

-d.d.

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