In the Fourlands, a world on the brink of being overrun by hordes of large Insects, salvation falls to the shoulders of a winged drug addict. This is the opening premise of Steph Swainston's epic, nothing-is-quite-what-it seems fantasy novel, The Year of Our War. Our protagonist, Jant the Messenger, is one of fifty immortals charged with combating the forces of the Insects in the Fourlands. Each of the Immortals is the best at what they do, Jant is the fastest, thus he is The Messenger. One of the other primary Immortals in the story is Lightning the Archer, he is the one Jant communicates with the most often and probably the closest thing to a friend. Though they are Immortal they can still be killed, they achieve immortality when they challenge for a title, like The Messenger, and their ageing halts upon defeating the immortal they challenge. No hints are given to how Jant became Immortal, though through somewhat jarring flashbacks, we learn some of Jant's past.
This war has been going on for hundreds years and very little is known of the origins of the Insects, save for the fact that they unrelentingly destroy everything in their path. The war with the Insects serves as a backdrop for the more character driven events comprising the meat of story - particularly Jant’s inner struggles as they mirror his attempts at understanding the source of the Insects. This is a novel that constantly challenges the reader’s assumptions, both about the genre in which it so wonderfully fits and the characters and world contained therein. Like the best Fantasy Writers, Swainston plays with the reality we think we know and our overall expectations. In a series of flashbacks and drug-induced reality jaunts, Jant discovers connections between the realm of the dead and the Insects. When Jant uses the drug cat, his "trip" takes him to place called "The Shift," a plane of reality with even more odd creatures than the Insects and where the dead walk with full life. This leads to one of many questions, is Jant dying each time he uses the drug or is he raising his consciousness to the next level of being. This is one of the strengths of a good novel and writer - raising questions and allowing the reader to come to conclusions and not providing heavy-handed answers.
Swainston's imagination explodes of the page, breaking several molds of Epic Fantasy, which on the surface one could easily categorize this book. Many Epic Fantasies tell stories of war against an almost faceless enemy. Check that, the hordes of the Insects are for all intents and purposes, faceless. Many Epic Fantasies externalize the inner struggles of their characters, but I few novels or writers have molded this particular cliché into such an oddly original shapes. While the setting of many an Epic Fantasy recalls Medieval Europe, Swainston eschews such familiar trappings. While the warriors do wear armor and use swords and bows & arrows, they also read newspapers, wear jeans and T-shirts and live and hang out in castles. Some Fantasies, though medieval-esque are actually, a far future, Swainston doesn't quite go that route of a thinning future, either. In absorbing the setting and characters, I got the sense that society stopped progressing when the Insect war began, but it didn't quite regress. It is almost as if the people of the Fourlands have paused their societal evolution and will pick things up once the War is over. An odd statement for a War that has lasted for hundreds of years, but it is still the feeling I got from these people. Another conundrum of this novel is that while The Year of Our War is the first of a series, there is closure at the end of the book. All told, on many levels Swainston keeps you on your toes and doesn't allow you to get too comfortable with your assumptions.
Swainston has crafted a truly participatory novel, The Year of Our War is something you immerse yourself in, it is not a novel that will give you the answers. If I can raise any negative criticism about this novel is that some of the passages get a bit wordy. On the whole, this is a remarkbly imaginative novel that eptomizes why Fantasy is such a wonderful branch of literature, in terms of expanding our sense of reality and leading us to question where reality begins and ends. This is the first book of 2005's US releases I've read and the year has most definitely started out on the right foot.
© 2005 Rob H. Bedford
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