Steph Swainston is apparently one of these New Weird writers – what that means I cannot precisely tell you, especially since I find her much easier to digest than China Miéville or Jeff Vandermeer (not that these are bad writers, at all – just very different from her, and from each other).
God left the Fourlands over two thousand years ago – apparently he needed a vacation. In his absence he placed San in charge – Emperor San, who holds the Castle, who grants immortality to fifty men and women serving in the Circle, who defends the Fourlands against the invading Insect hordes. Under his guidance, with the Circle’s immortal expertise, San maintains a delicate stalemate against the Insects, who’ve advanced far as Lowespass, and have built there a Wall.
We enter the scene in 2014, where King Dunlin Rachiswater of Awia, with Circle immortals Lightning (the Archer), Tornado (the Strongman), Mist (the Sailor) and Comet (the Messenger) as counsel, aides, validation and support. Comet, Jant Shira, is our first-person narrator, and through him we see Rachiswater as a dynamic ruler, an offensive strategist. Being Zascai, mortal, his goals are to stamp out the Insects in a decisive ingress at the Wall. Being Eszai, Circle immortals, Lightning and co. want a plan of attack that’ll save more lives. Rachiswater wants to be Eszai, and hopes his successful attack will show Emperor San his worth.
Through Jant Shira’s jittery, withdrawal-tinted (more on drugs in a bit) perspective, Dunlin Rachiswater is both an admirable hero and a fool; and of course, in the line of heroic duty he is mortally injured. As a last act of sympathy, euthanasia, what-have-you, Jant gives Dunlin a fatal dose of scolopendium – a hallucinatory drug that in unsafe doses sends the junkie into Shift. Shift is a parallel world with no clear connection to the Fourlands, or any part of the known universe. As an immortal who can take more scolopendium than a mortal without dying, Jant is possibly the only living being who visits the Shift on a regular basis. He sends Dunlin there, hoping that Dunlin can gain a form of immortality – he can stay in Shift (specifically in the city city Epsilon) forever, doing what he pleases there.
Jant Shira posits himself as a character on the sidelines, working as Messenger for the Castle, under the mentorship of older Zascai, especially Lightning, whom he hero-worships as a Noble Ideal. His “cat” addiction often renders him nonfunctional, with various people enabling his habit, covering up for him, disapproving without barring him from it. Why does the Emperor keep him around? Well. Jant Shira, when functional, is still self-absorbed and self-pitying, but he is inconveniently intelligent, excellently multilingual and he is the only living being who can fly. As the product of an Awian (who have non-functional wings and hollow bones) and a Rhydanne (a lithe, light people with excellent reflexes) Jant Shira is a cat-bird-human amalgam who can travel up to 120 kilometres on a clear night. He was 23 when he first joined the Circle, and remains 23 forever – blessing and a curse, one he notices only tangentially.
Jant Shira, two hundred odd years old, has seen a lot of change. Lightning (and other characters we don’t see much of in this narrative) is older, and more rooted in his powerful, elegant past. Shira walks, talks, and lives in contemporary norm – denims, sloganed t-shirts, dealers, needles and pound notes (which last he uses to snort up cat); swords, arrows, lightweight shields, an old-fashioned admiration of the aristocracy and a fantasy world he can “shift” to at the push of a plunger. His place as Eszai is in danger because of his near nonfunctionality – one gathers that only his erratic sobriety keeps him in his post. The Circle is a position of much value, with people hoping to challenge or marry their way in.
If Jant’s position is uncertain, at least it is a place the unsympathetic reader can believe he will retain if he kicks his narratively tiresome habit. Mist, the Sailor and his wife, Ata, cannot say the same. They both are at war with each other, jockeying for the position of Sailor. Their internal wars overflow to entangle such bystanders as Lightning, their daughter Cyan, and Jant himself. Meanwhile, the Insects are more aggressive than usual, pushing farther and farther to the Fourlands, with towns and forts being abandoned to their voracious hunger. Where are they coming from? When will the Castle pull together its bickering forces to thrust them back to the sea?
I’ll note, by the way, that both as a drug addict constantly stretching his body’s limits and as a being who can fly, in body not truly constructed to do so with ease, Jant Shira fulfills, for the most part, the function of the vulnerable male body as written by female authors. (I’m still not sure what the hell tree I’m barking up, but I’m pretty certain the tree exists, and so: Mark.)
Jant Shira is a fantastic narrator (and in his own world an acknowledged poet and writer – it’s his job, after all). His prose (well, actually Swainston’s) is economical and rarely mundane. The plot rushes on carrying the reader with it, and there’s not a single dull moment. Jant’s shifts between realities pull together a convoluted but ultimately straightforward plot, delineating an era of momentary success against the Insects, as well as putting Jant into a position of some ambiguity with his irascible Emperor.
What Jant doesn’t give us is much detail. Where does a seemingly unindustrialised world make its jeans, t-shirts and syringes? How, if there is only one true expert in medicine, has there been progress enough to make Junkie Jant an excellent field medic? How does San’s power work, and why do people accept him as their benevolent if inefficient overlord? Is Rhydanne sex really like that? (It seems to be.)
Further, Jant’s constant need for a fix does have the utility of giving him access to Shift, which means that narratively, his habit receives a left-handed validation and permission which can get tiresome in future novels. In fact, future novels have a lot to take care of – they must provide us with more information about the Fourlands, fill in the holes of The Year of Our War‘s breakneck pacing, and show us deeper insights into characters Jant has shallowly judged from moment to moment.
For all these flaws, Jant and the Fourlands are fascinating: in their history, socio-hierarchies, in the present power structures and in their chosen heroes. Lightning and Dunlin Rachiswater exercise a charisma undimmed for being shown hastily from Jant’s sidelines – in fact, Dunlin undertakes an entire heroic quest worthy of the epic fantastic in its own right. Mist and Ata are a powerful tale of unbanked ambition and ruthlessness, Tornado the Strongman shows an unremitting strength and love. There’s more than enough fodder here to make it impossible to ignore the sequel – I’m picking up No Present Like Time right away.