Steph Swainston follows up The Year of Our War with another story set in the grim and unpleasant Fourlands. While I still think her work is informed by far too much cynicism to appeal to fans of traditional epic fantasy, her storytelling has improved in her sophomore effort. The narrative is more accessible, and her characters, while still not especially likeable, are at least more sympathetic for their flaws than otherwise. It's true Swainston's audience may be limited to only the most adventurous fantasy readers. But adventurous is what writers and readers should all strive to be, right?
Jant Comet, the drug-addicted winged messenger who is one of fifty immortals ruling over the Fourlands under the emperor San, has been ordered much against his will to accompany an ocean voyage to the distant, recently discovered island of Tris. The ravenous Insects that have been laying waste to much of the Fourlands are less of a problem than they were in book one, and San is able to devote himself to other pursuits, such as a diplomatic mission to a remote island. But the mission, led by Mist Ata (who has taken her erstwhile husband's name and place in the Circle of immortals) and the archer Lightning, is a rank disaster — perhaps bringing a captive Insect along was not such a good idea. The delegation is sent home with their tails between their legs. Back in the Fourlands, more bad news awaits.
Gio Ami, the immortals' greatest swordsman, has been successfully Challenged and usurped by upstart fighter Wrenn. Wrenn then goes on to join the mission to Tris. Gio has not taken his defeat, much less his ejection from the Circle and his return to mortality, gracefully. He has exploited continued discontent among many of the people over San's rule to foment open rebellion. Skirmishes between armies on both sides are already underway when the delegation's ships return to harbor. A hurried journey back to the Castle is waylaid by Gio and some of his men, and Lightning is gravely wounded. (Immortals don't age and die naturally, but they can die by violence well enough.)
Ultimately, Jant learns the outcome of the rebellion — and the individual plans of both San and Gio — will hinge upon Tris. San wants to bring the island, inhabited by the descendents of Fourlands refugees, back into the fold. Gio, realizing that a direct rebellion against the castle cannot succeed, wants to win over the Trisians and rule there.
With the Insects largely out of the picture, No Present Like Time focuses its thematic lens on the failings of imperialism and the downside of religion's ultimate promise, immortality. In Swainston's world, even God has gotten fed up with the place, going off on a permanent vacation and leaving San in charge. Naturally, immortality and vast power breed envy. There may well be "no present like time," but it comes with quite a few strings attached. The immortals are no less plagued by simple anxieties (indeed, much more so) than we. Jant tries, but simply cannot give up his drug habit, for which he blames his wife's infidelities. His friends all point out the situation is the other way round. Lightning obsesses over an unrequited love centuries in the past. And everyone learns just how fragile the gift of immortality can be when Wrenn defeats Gio. Most Challenges fail, since the incumbents are usually the best in the land. But one simple slip, and a life that has witnessed centuries reverts to a normal span.
With all that's at stake, and all that torments them, why do the immortals hang on to their gift so fervently? Because life is life, after all. And even an immortal recognizes that the briefest moments when it's all going right can offset the worst strife. Jant treasures the bonds of friendship, learned as a child running in the street gangs; by his own admission, it's what keeps him a child at heart. And all of the Circle genuinely believe in the Fourlands, and their charge to keep it safe for the mortals under their protection.
Tris itself is irrevocably changed by its encounter with Ata's diplomatic mission, and not just because an Insect has been inadvertently let loose. The fact of imperialism is that even when it is undertaken with the most altruistic of motives, cultures are profoundly altered. This is not always a bad thing. But in the real world, for every developing culture that's been brought medicine and literacy and other benefits, you could find one brought smallpox, war, and religious tyranny. To what degree should a culture be left alone to develop at its own pace, and to what degree should it be given a boost? And is a boost really necessary, or is the goal of empire building simply to increase territories and spread the rule of one power? Tris had an advanced and idyllic society when they first meet the Fourlanders. The tragedy of how it changes afterwards weighs heavily on Jant in particular.
There's a lot more of substance to engage you in this sequel, and many of the first book's foibles are fixed. (I love alliteration!) There are times Jant is as whiny as ever. But in this volume we get more backstory, and the events of Jant's past show how his character was shaped for all time. We learn more about other immortals and even San himself, too. But as in the first volume, there are still dozens of immortals unaccounted for in the story. I couldn't help wondering why so much of the Fourlands' fate hinged upon the actions of the same five or so folks, especially as all fifty immortals are supposed to divvy up the rule.
Swainston's lush and visually resplendent writing carries the book over the top. She remains one of fantasy's most compelling new talents, and one most definitely worth your time.