Steph Swainston‘s Circle Trilogy examined, over the course of three books (well, obviously) and fifteen years an important period in the Insect Wars. The Circle of Immortals, given immortality by San (representative of God in the Fourlands) on the basis of supreme skill in their chosen area, work with the nobility and drafted soldiers to keep the Insects at bay – with varying success.
Jant Shira is the Messenger, designated Comet. Half-Rhydanne, half-Awian (which makes him a cat-boy with wings), Jant’s peculiar unique mongrelitude makes him the only being in the Fourlands – and farther afield – capable of regular flight. I haven’t spoken about this much in the reviews for the previous three books, but Swainston spends some amount of time making the possibility of flight in Jant’s body nearly plausible to the average, biologically uneducated reader. Jant’s sexy angel-boy good looks, immortal youth, facility with languages and fresh cynicism are balanced out by his impetuous stupidity, his drug addiction, his other addictions, his desperate desire for approval and status, his conflicted dual-self. Above the Snowline jumps centuries back instead of five years ahead, covering in greater detail ground mentioned in passing in the original trilogy.
Shira Dellin, a Rhydanne woman from the Dakaling borders, comes to the Castle to solicit San’s aid. Awians are encroaching on Rhydanne hunting grounds, making it impossible for Rhydanne to hunt, and not taking it too well when the Rhydanne steal their horses. There is a vast cultural disconnect here, one that remains unbridged for the forseeable future. San sends Jant with Dellin to find out what is going on, and to handle it as much as he can. Jant has been immortal less than a century: this is an opportunity for him to prove that he is worthy of his exalted status.
With Dellin, Jant faces his own past in the Rhydanne lands, and is forced to acknowledge that his upbringing left him unacquainted with his Rhydanne people, not just his Awian. Further he must deal with Raven Rachiswater, who intends to use his illegal fortress as a base of operations to gain the Awian throne. (To be honest, Jant’s final solution to the Raven problem should have been applied right at the beginning. I spent most of the narrative wondering why the hell he was being so dense, and why Lightning went along with him.) His own loyalties are conflicted, torn between the obvious exploitation of Rhydanne land and peoples (there is a somewhat obvious but as yet un-stale White Man vs. Indigenous peoples of Pick-Your-Continent parallel, but it works well enough and is not harped on). The novel moves between each agenda, each passion fluidly (save for one particular sequence near the end which is too blatant in its attempt to ramp up the anticipation); I think I felt more for each character than I did for anyone in the Circle Trilogy.
In some ways Above the Snowline is a better read for the newcomer to Swainston’s work, as opposed to the old faithful. While the novel shows us a younger, more insecure and thankfully clean Jant Shira, the original trilogy is so focussed on Shira’s involvement in Castle, Circle, Fourland politics and the immediate tactics and strategies of war against a literally alien enemy that it seems futile to send us back in time – we already know what the future holds. The reader who starts with Above the Snowline will take an easier understanding of Jant’s difficult, sometimes intolerable character with hir into the trilogy – this as well as some insight into the way the Circle is viewed by the mortals around them, which is something the other books lack. Most importantly,the novel is narrated from several perspectives, Jant’s most obviously, Lightning Micah Shearwater most importantly. Lightning is a character with a great deal of emotional importance in the trilogy, and in Above the Snowline one can see why Jant relies on him so very much, and why he might be kindly disposed to Jant in return.
There is a freshness to the prequel, peopled as it is by ruthless,
passionate people who can’t see beyond their own desires, rights and ambitions; the young and the experienced; the well-intentioned and the not-so-nice; mortal and immortal; “high” and “low” (take that both literally and metaphorically). I recommend it highly to fans and new readers, and mellowly to those of you who want more background into Fourlands people and Jant’s own history. I liked it!