Steph Swainston is the author of three books set in the Fourlands, a series she collectively calls The Castle Series. Two more are forthcoming. The Year of Our War is the story of Jant, the Messenger, one of fifty immortals who serve the Empire, a large nation covering most of a (fairly small) continent which is under threat of destruction from the Insects, a vast, endless horde that dominates the northern part of the landmass. Jant is a drug addict, but with good reason: the drug he takes, cat, transports him into the Shift, another world where some of the dead souls of his own world go, and where he has vital allies in the war against the Insects.
This is a pretty difficult book to review. Just when I was certain that I was going to end up hating it, the story would take off, the characters and the writing would click and I'd end up enjoying it. Then something else would happen and it would end up annoying me again. This pattern repeated itself throughout the book until it finally reached a highly ambiguous conclusion (there is no resolution, the book just stops with less of a climax than many of the standard chapter endings). To some extent it was a frustrating book, but I think its positives outweigh it problems.
The writing is quite interesting, with a sense of bright-eyed whimsy which is often at odds with the subject matter (drug abuse, a soldier getting his stomach torn out, a violent sex scene) in a manner not entirely removed from Jack Vance (although Swainston doesn't push it quite as far as Vance). The strange mixing of time and space in the book - this is a medieval world with T-shirts and jeans and added steampunk moments - is much more reminiscent of Mieville, which I get the impression is what Swainston was aiming for (and was successful, given her acknowledged place in the New Weird pantheon and Mieville's endorsement on the cover). The anachronisms and incongruities were initially rather jarring, but you rapidly get used to them and assume there is some kind of explanation for them.
The characters are all reasonably well developed, with the immortals coming across as a mix between superheroes, Greek legends and ordinary people in over their heads. Swainston crams a surprising amount of plot into the book's 360 pages, such as the tortured family history of Lightning, the Archer, and the machinations of Swallow, the musician-governess of Awndan, as she attempts to become immortal herself. These backstories give the characters weight and depth that informs their actions and doesn't feel incongruous, which is quite an achievement. Less successful is the attempt to give Jant himself development, with his flashbacks coming in disjointed scattershot, making it difficult to put together the pieces of his life and find out how he came to be who he is. Also, because Jant is exceptionally emo a lot of the time (being immortal , one of the fifty most important people in the world and the only person alive who can fly is extremely traumatic, obviously) and spends much of the book either urgently wanting a fix or going through cold turkey, he is a hard protagonist to like, which is a problem in a first-person narrative.
The climax also leaves much to be desired. This is very much the first part of a series and not a self-contained novel at all. As well as Jant's under-developed backstory, there are numerous storylines and characters left hanging in mid-air. I assume that these points are addressed in the sequel, No Present Like Time.
The Year of Our War (***) aspires to be different and certainly achieves that. Swainston is clearly a talented writer and I look forward to investigating her other work, but at the same time this debut novel is rough around the edges and the ending doesn't really justify the build-up.
The Fourlands are recovering from a devastating invasion by the Insects. The Emperor San has ordered reconstruction efforts to be undertaken, under the watchful eye of his immortal Circle, but many feel that these efforts are proceeding too slowly. Refugees from the front clog the cities and dissatisfaction is spreading. When the Swordsman Gio is unseated by a skilled newcomer, his resentment fuels the flames of rebellion.
Meanwhile, the Messenger, Comet Jant Shira, is commanded to join an expedition to a newly-discovered land beyond the ocean. Terrified of the sea, Jant can only get through the journey by lapsing back into his drug habit. The new land of Tris turns out to be a wonderful paradise, but the Fourlanders' arrival sparks fear and trepidation...even before an Insect gets loose on the island.
No Present Like Time is the second of four novels in Steph Swainston's Castle series, set five years after the events of The Year of Our War. Whilst earlier events are referenced and provide notable backstory for this volume - such as the characterisation of Jant and several other members of the Circle - the main storyline of No Present Like Time is self-contained.
As before, the novel unfolds in the first-person from Jant's perspective. The book contains three principal storylines: the discovery of Tris and the events that unfold there; the rebellion against the established order led by the deposed Swordsman; and Jant's own personal crisis as he deals with his wife's supposed infidelity and his own resulting lapse back into drug use. There is a feeling of duality to the novel, as the external, large-scale and major events in the outside world impact on Jant's own personal life and emotional development, the epic made personal.
This blending of big events and Jant's own personal issues is more successful than in the first novel, The Year of Our War, which I enjoyed but overall felt was not an altogether successful blending of traditional epic fantasy elements and the New Weird (Swainston is regarded, by no less than China Mieville, as one of the leading authors of that much-debated movement). Here Swainston is much more confident in melding these elements into a much more cohesive whole. She also makes much better use of the Shift, the other-dimensional realm that Jant visits in his drug-induced state. The Shift is a place where sharks can take on a human aspect and drive cars made of animal organs, and where time can be rolled back and forth at will (I suspect this is also the part of the book which Mieville nodded approvingly over the most). However, rather than just being the destination for an excursion to Weirdsville for its own sake, the Shift plays a key role in the narrative, both thematically and practically.
There are some weaknesses. The book features no less than two separate visits to Tris, complete with descriptions of the sea voyages there and back. In a novel that's only 400 pages long, that doesn't give the author much time to pack everything in. The result is that Tris itself feels somewhat under-developed. We don't see any more of it than a single town and the fascinating culture-clash between the democratic, Senate-led Tris and the Empire of the Fourlands, ruled by its immortal god-emperor, is not expanded upon satisfyingly. Also, as the rebellion against the Emperor gets going off-page during the toing and froing across the ocean, it is never really convincingly established either. Swainston does a great job of using it for plot and character purposes, but the thematic chance to really challenge and question the way the Empire is run is not exploited to the full.
Nevertheless, No Present Like Time (****) is a significant improvement over its forebear and is an enjoyable read, packed with satisfyingly fantastical ideas and some excellent character development of both Jant and several of the other major principals. However, some other elements could have done with a bit more fleshing-out.