Steph Swainston returns (returned, actually, given that The Modern World was released back in 2008) with another Circle novel, set five years after No Present Like Time (itself set five years after The Year of Our War, which allows the Circle Trilogy to cover approximately a decade of regular unrest in the Fourlands). At the end of No Present Like Time, we were promised that Jant would be weaned off his regular intake of “cat“, which provides both narrative and character relief. The Modern World shows us the Fourlands in greater details and wider scope than either of the earlier novels – The Year of Our War concerned the Insect incursions and Circle in-fighting; No Present Like Time with outside influences (and neo-Imperialism, so exciting) and the effects and machinations of Circle politics as it affects the people under the Castle’s wardship.
Five years since the scorched earth victory on the isolated Island Tris, the Circle architect, Frost, is nearing the completion of an immense dam at Lowespass, where the invading, ravenous Insects are held at bay (a tedious, centuries-long stalemate). The idea is to drown the Insect hordes and end the war. Frost is a fascinating character, a perfectionist: intelligent, creative and filtered through Jant’s mostly-sober perspective she takes on a presence she might not have had from an older or more socially adept character.
The completion of the dam is to be a military and media event – the near-guaranteed victory, or least tactical and strategic advantage, will change the face of Circle-Fourland power dynamics, allow the Fourlands to recover from a decade of bloody unrest and lay out the field for God to return, taking the world back from Emperor San’s tender care.
Meanwhile, Lightning’s daughter Cyan has disappeared. Lightning remains the presence he has been in the Circle , filtered through Jant’s admiration, suppressed resentment and annoyed respect to an unchanging, dignified tower of history and honour – and for Lightning, Jant takes off to seedy Hacilith to find Cyan and either rescue her or convince her to come to Lowespass where she can watch her father at his work.
Whatever else once may say about Swainston’s work – and I still feel like she spares us the tedium of info-dump at the cost of some economic world-building – she excels at capturing the feel of a location. Hacilith was where Jant lived as a half-grown adolescent, running wild in street gangs and apprenticed to an apothecary. Centuries later Cyan has come here to slum it in the Real World. Cyan is extraordinarily immature – nearly unbelievably so, though I suppose there are no analogues for the daughter of an immortal, a girl who shall inherit lands and has not been educated in her duties and privileges forthcoming, stifled and overprotected and spoiled spoiled spoiled. Cyan’s bad behaviour fulfills the dual purpose of character development for an unexpectedly large number of people, and of a mirror to Jant’s own life and nature. Lightning is Cyan’s father, and he also has the dubious honour of being Jant’s unofficial mentor.
So. Cyan runs away to Hacilith, runs around with seedy men in seedy bars, has an overdose of cat and has a near-death experience in the Shift – a parallel world only reachable through cat overdose or an as-yet unexplained meditative process. Enter the Vermiform, a hive-mind of worms. I kid you not. An all-too-hasty rescue mission and chase scene through too many locations in the Shift later, Cyan is rescued, Jant has seen too many lands destroyed by Insects, and the Vermiform is still around.
The Modern World is mostly narrated by Comet Jant Shira, Messenger for the Circle. Through his jaded, tired, shallow but perspective eyes we see a nation that has lain stagnant for too long, with economies centred around mor and more efficient forms of warfare – medieval to our eyes, and entirely brutal. It’s possible to read The Modern World as a stand alone novel, but I wouldn’t recommend it. As with The Year of Our War and No Present Like Time, the material plot exists as a vehicle for exploring overarching questions of the nature of the multiverse that more and more of the Fivelanders are in contact with, and now beginning to be conscious of said contact. More universal (as opposed to in-novel multi-versal) issues of religion (more precisely, faith), the generational divide, power in the hands of women – more on this later – function following form and the dangers of submitting to your benevolent tyrant.
I’ve skimmed over the concept that Jant embodies the vulnerable male body as written by a female author before, but not in detail. To examine: Jant is a Rhydanne-Awian hybrid, the only one that exists. Think of the Rhydanne as human-shaped people with a LOT of cat mixed in; the Awians have human-shaped but have vestigial wings. In Jant, these combine to give you a man who can, with a lot of training (self-researched), work and more wear-and-tear than seems advisable, fly. A long-limbed, lean, boy with wings is our Jant. The prologue shows us his recurring nightmares of his first major wounding after he joined the Circle and became immortal. It took him a year to recover, under the experienced, incomparable Rayne, the Circle Healer. (Rayne has more of a presence in this novel, but her contributions are more to atmosphere than to plot.) In a strange flashback set before No Present Like Time, Queen Eleonora of Awia ties Jant down and violates him with inanimate objects. The section serves no obvious purpose, unless we’re to be impressed with the idea that Women Can Be Evil And Powerfuller Than Men, Who Moon About Being Sentimental And/Or Useless. It isn’t required to display Jant’s desperate need for control and security, nor is it required as an “explanation” for his habits and character.
It follows, in fact, a rather worrying trend: there are very few women in the Circle novels who are written as positive characters. At their jobs, at their skills, at their life’s work these women are all competent, accomplished, skilled and even excellent. And yet I give you:
- Cyan, when she uses her teenaged brain (not often) shows the beginnings of a woman to be reckoned with. But for the most part she whinges around saying she wants to be free, make her own decisions, have her dad pay more attention to her, take up her duties, do anything but her duties, and everyone is mean to her.
- Eleonora, a practical, pragmatic ruler who has rationally and systematically oversaw the reconstruction of her kingdom after two separate incursions. She is an excellent character, and it’s too bad she rapes immortals to sate her pervesrity and reputedly is behaving badly with the castle maids.
- Mist Ata (last seen in No Present Like Time) – incomparable Sailor for the Castle who uses her body and her femininity to manipulate the men around her, who has no tact, respect, delicacy for anyone but herself and uses her family to extend her power. She killed her last husband, became pregnant to get Lightning (not her husband) under her thumb, and blackmails people as cheerfully as Jant does.
- Frost, who may have been normal once, but locked in her grieving for her dead husband is a pale cipher surrounded by blind perfectionism. She is sensible and determined and not annoying or in any way malicious, and Swainston does not reward her overmuch.
- The woman Jant may or may not have raped (it’s a cultural thing) and his cheating wife whom we don’t see much of. (The only wife-of-an-immortal who may have deserved outright respect is dead. There are trends here!
The only female character with any straightforward decency is Rayne, ancient, lonely, a healer, and little to no plot agency. Swainston has been very clear that she does not want to draw pristine characters for us to admire, but I think it strange that
It’s annoying, so sue me.
And yet. Despite these flaws. The mysteries of San in the multiverse, the vermiform, the Insects, the Fivelands. The politics, the infighting, the Immortals and the mortals. The children. The battles! I have been careful not to say anything about the battles – read and find out! – but the unfolding of that plotline is fantastic, completely inevitable in hindsight and yet completely unexpected. The final chapter-cum epilogue shows us a HUGE character event that will shake the political, Circle, and personal relationships in the Fivelands for years. It’s scnadalous, exciting, frightening and very, very brave.
I like The Modern World. Descriptive, vast, with little to no drag, it’s a must-read for every Swainston reader (even if you were a bit drained by No Present Like Time). There’s been no word (that I can see) of a sequel, though Swainston had out a prequel this year – I want very badly to see what happens next. Not for the Insects, but for the world, and the people in it.