Swarmthief’s Dance (Book One of the Swarmthief Trilogy) by Deborah J Miller. Published by TOR UK.
They are important to the world, no doubt. And numerous. David Attenborough, the famous naturalist, in his recent BBC series Life in the Undergrowth points out the importance of insects, saying that there are ten million species of invertebrate, of which it is estimated there are nine million waiting to be discovered.
Nevertheless, they can still make the most rational, even-tempered person go ‘Ugh’. The mere sight of one, or even mention of the word, drives some people, (including, by the way, members of the Hobbit family), into uncontrollable, almost-heart-stopping terror. Moreover, the mere sight of a wasp induces blind panic. In summary – nasty, buzzy, vicious.
So you can imagine my need to cover up the cover (actually a rather gorgeous cover by Paul Gregory) on the arrival of Deborah J Miller’s latest book Swarmthief’s Dance. There, against a backdrop of blue, is a huge – make that HUGE – dragonfly.
That might put some off. Which is a bit of a shame. Not only is the cover a great one, the book itself (perhaps more importantly!) is a thoroughly entertaining one.
The story begins by dealing with gods and their amoral relationships with each other. In the chapter Raan, Aria, (one of the Nulefi), resists the advances of the guardian of the Underworld, the aforementioned Rann. When the other Nulefi come to her aid and defend her against Rann, in his jealous rage he hatches a plot which leads to Aria being caught whilst trying to steal a mortal’s soul and so breaking one of the cardinal rules of the Gods.
For this, Herrukal the Creator, the Zeus-like Father of the Gods, banishes their spirits, not to Rann’s Underworld, (much to Rann’s displeasure) but instead to reappear as the Swarms of Myr – hive minds that coalesce into huge dragonflies on occasion. (Hence the dragonfly on the front of the book!)
Afterwards, in the mortal realm, a young boy (named Snoot) sees the laying of an egg from a Swarm dragonfly. On telling his tale, he is accused of heresy and banished. For this is the human world of Myr, where to think that such events are possible are dealt with by beatings and evictions.
Years later, evil portents are seen. The Shemari, priests of the real-world servants of Herrukal, see events which suggest that the Nulefi are returning, or at least their offspring are to be born. This foretells the end of the world as they know it, (Herrukal sees such events as blasphemy and would be happy to destroy the world as the humans know it in order to stop such sacrilege) and so Tavidar Asoori Pikresh and Tavidar Kilmer Torroshi are dispatched on a mission to retrieve an egg, allegedly seen at Releeza.
Though Asoori and Kilmer are married, going with them is Cion Gezezi, a soldier of the elite Bakkujasi – faithful warrior-like servants who ride the Swarms – whose role is to oversee events for the good of the Shemari and the Emperor. He also happens to be Kilmer’s other lover, which complicates events enormously.
The other main thread of the tale involves Vivreki Monvedrian (the titular Swarmthief) and his ‘brother’ Stief, who also, through various circumstances, attempt to collect the Swarm egg. In their rite of passage they encounter many individuals who help them along their way, which in turn lead to many dramatic events and the meeting of the two sets of characters towards the book’s climax.
The book was a very pleasant read for me. After the rather left-of-centre Prologue (which made sense later), I very quickly immersed myself into Miller’s imagined world. I imagined the venues of the book as I was reading. I loved the setting – there was a feeling of a voyage of wonder and discovery as, through the story, I explored the many environments, physical and cultural – of Myr. The Sky Temple, the Fedewere River, palaces such as that near Falloden Sen, the desert – even the names of the places, such as Releeza, Gremeshkenn Sor – all gave a feeling of depth and a history which was intimated through few words – this is a relatively short book.
As the book advances, Miller also shows that, as with, say. George RR Martin’s latest series, nothing in the story is to be taken for granted. There are events and situations I didn’t anticipate as I read, and towards the end of the book kept the pages turning at a furious rate.
Where Miller succeeds most, however, is her characterisation. Though the book is relatively short, the characters have depth and motive, so even when you realise as a reader you like / dislike them, you can see that they are multifaceted. The complicated relationship between the three lovers could’ve been seen as tawdry and clichéd, but I thought was well handled here by an author whose skill and experience as a writer shone through.
It is often the seemingly smaller characters that enhance the book. The multi-party personality of the Sin Eater, Sevim and Spall, who absorbs people’s sins before the person’s soul is taken away to the Underworld, is both a horror and an enticement to the reader. The Bakkujasi, (the Riders of the Swarm), and tengu (wraith-like ghosts with a sinister purpose) are suitably otherworldly and creepy.
The book’s three-hundred or so pages read quickly and well, unlike the often over-length tomes of some fantasy series.
I found this succinctness a refreshing change. Because of it, the book read as a sleeker, leaner read, where every word mattered. What also was apparent was that events and details are kept concise, yet well-paced and developed. What also really worked for me there was Miller’s stylistic habit of using short-cut scenes between different characters and events, some of which were no more than a paragraph in length. In some books I’ve read in the past, I found this to be annoying, though here I found it helped maintain interest and pace.
In summary, then, a very pleasant surprise, and a recommended book. I look forward to the next in the series in interest.
Now all I have to do is keep the cover hidden…… and remember to be less ready to use the insect repellent in future.
Hobbit, December 2005