Swainston places us five years after the last, massive, Insect incursion: the Fourlands are still in the throes of reconstruction. Awia in particular is still reeling under economic crisis. The Castle is involved, of course, and concerned, but denizens have something more exciting to think of: Gio Ami, Swordsman of the Castle, titled Serein, has just lost a Challenge – and therefore his place in the immortal Circle. He is no longer Swordsman, no longer Serein. In his place is 25-year old Wrenn Culmish – now the youngest Circle member. Wrenn is a feted hero – long may his ascendancy last – and the immortal Eszai crowd around the newcomer, ignoring Gio. Such near-shunning is automatic, a display both of the discomfort of losing an old comrade to a ruthless meritocracy of perfection, and an Eszai arrogance that sees and values Eszai over mortal Zascai. (And why not? Zascai die, Escai stick around for ages before you must mourn them.)
Again we see the immortal Circle, led by God’s chosen, the Emperor San, through the eyes of Comet Jant Shira, Messenger. Since we last saw him in The Year of Our War, Jant has been clean, sometimes sober and mostly efficient for five short years. Throughout this novel we are frequently shown Jant as some of his peers must see him – a shallow, material, surprisingly perceptive, acutely intelligent, often useful oddity. But things do not look good. Mist Ata Dei – the Sailor – is to lead Jant and Lightning Saker Micahwater – the Archer – on a sailing expedition to a newly discovered island, Tris: thence to offer its inhabitants (rich, peaceful, untroubled by Insects) a place in the Empire, protection, trade – and the chance to be immortal if they gain a place in the Circle. The new Serein Wrenn chooses to come with them – his first task for the Emperor, his first adventure as Eszai. All well and good, except – Jant is terrified of the sea. On top his extreme terror is his new-found knowledge that his wife, Tern, is involved in an affair – normally nothing to worry about, but Tern is dallying with Tornado, the Castle Strongman. A mortal lover who won’t be young and beautiful in a decade or two? Who cares? An immortal, larger and stronger than Jant, likely to be here centuries from now? That’s competition, and Jant is self-aware enough to be very, very threatened.
At the tail end of such sterling virtues as lying, adultery, whinging, being young(er) and immature, reading private correspondence, sleeping through appointed duties in a drugged haze, entering said drugged haze in the first place, Jant now adds theft to his repertoire, taking Tern’s money (earmarked, no less, for reconstruction of Tern’s holdings) to buy drugs. Four Eszai must now take the reader along a three-month sea-journey to a near-mythically perfect island. The narrative flags dangerously here. While Jant’s drug of choice has proven to have plot value in the previous novel, what it might bring to the table here is less clear. Jant’s addiction no longer holds any novelty, and while Swainston utilises the journey for some very useful info-dumping, for the most part we wait for Jant to do new things – which, to be fair, he does once or twice, unveiling the sinister mechanisms Mist is to use to convince the Trisians to accede to the Emperor’s “offer” – mostly we just wait for him to run out of cat and focus.
Tris and its inhabitants are vaguely reminiscent of the Incans, with plenty of gold (enough to literally piss in), and a seemingly egalitarian economic/political system. (I’m also reminded a great deal of Aldous Huxley’s Island.) Jant shines here, really – as a scholar, as a linguist, as a diplomat (albeit working for some incredibly clumsy leaders – Mist is a fantastic strategist on the sea, in battle, but she has not half the sensitivity she needs to understand when someone neither wants nor needs what she is offering, nor to to refrain from insulting someone via translator). A series of mishaps wreck havoc in the main city (Capharnaum), destroy potential relations with the Capharnai and leave the Eszai with no choice but to return home with the gold and spices they’ve traded for steel and rum – and a single book of history which Jant stole from the library (well done, Jant! You are a credit to all Eszai).
Back in the Fourlands, the Castle faces rebellion, on the brink of civil war. Ex-Serein Gio Ami has amassed a horde of the discontented masses, blaming the Castle, the Eszai, and an allegedly deluded Emperor for the Insect invasions, the current economic downturn and the secrecy surrounding Tris – land of gold, where any down-on-his-luck Fourlands farmer or soldier can get rich. Rich! Rich! There is more sea-travel, more cat, assassination plots, some mawkish but aged (and therefore dignified) sentimentality from Lightning – and Jant uses more cat to perform more crazy acts of saving the day, only somewhat making up for many futile acts of fucking up everything possible.
No Present Like Time fills in a great deal of the Fourlands’ history, most especially as it relates to the Castle. This works best to explain the Eszai – their rituals, their priorities. It’s good to see what immortality can do to a person – either in the seeking or the keeping or it. And of course, in the losing. In particular we learn more of Rayne (the Doctor) and Lightning – both particular idols for Jant, and so drawn with more fondness and charity. They are foils for Jant, of course – Rayne in her sensible, aged maturity, Lightning in his romantic practicality. If Jant (at his functional best) has dadvantages over both – his quick cleverness and dynamism, his sensory but abiding passions – he still leans on both these Eszai for support and validation. An undercurrent of the novels is a deepening intimacy – or at least, humanisation, of these, the oldest Eszai – in front of Jant, who values these revelations both for his own ego and because of his tenderness towards them. (Jant when he is functional – even merely as a friend – is delightful to read, partially becase functional protagonists are easier to live with, and partially because it makes a welcome contrast to his highs, lows, cravings and withdrawals.)
Amidst the history, the unveilings of San’s vast plans that span centuries, the mystery of San’s larger goals and issues of the Shift – the parallel world Jant still visits when overdosing on cat – some of the issues from The Year of Our War repeat here in No Present Like Time. Where are the industries and universities? How do they work? If they’re making bicycles in the Fourlands and cars out of athletic flesh in the Shift, why aren’t we seeing more of all of these? What on earth is Dunlin Rachiswater – so integral to The Year of Our War – doing now? Ignoring these questions, Swainston takes us through imperialism, Fourlands-style; good old fashioned conquistador-ing; a reminder that knowledge, and the ability to learn in different languages and thought systems, is an integral part of keeping track of what your (mysterious, revered, Machiavellian) Emperor might be up to. As with The Year of Our War, there is a near-continual focus on socio-economic hierarchies, as well as cultural-racial divides – how they wound us, and how reaching above them can neither heal nor exacerbate an existing problem. No Present Like Time does not move at The Year of Our War’s breakneck pace, and it might even lag at some moments, but it’s a more contemplative narrative. As a stand-alone novel it does not work, and perhaps it could have used more action, but No Present Like Time is still an enjoyable read, one which leaves a lot of room for further novels in the series.