Tag Archives: Steph Swainston

Above the Snowline by Steph Swainston

Eye copyright David Thurston

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,

Don't ask me about this cover, it's not the one you're getting.

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!

No Present Like Time by Steph Swainston

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.

The Year of Our War by Steph Swainston

I'm speculating: Cover Design by Emma Wallace (she definitely did the *next*) - my own book has a black background, possibly so the damn thing is easier to see

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.