As we reach the halfway point of the new century's first decade, England retains pole position as the source of some of the most daring, genre-bending talents in fantasy. It's almost like going back to the heady days of the late 60's New Wave, with contemporary writers like China Miéville, Storm Constantine, Ian R. MacLeod, Charlie Stross, and now Steph Swainston gathering up all of Michael Moorcock's, Brian Aldiss's and J.G. Ballard's old toys from the attic and seeing who can be the first to poke out an eye.
Of course, it's all good fun until someone gets hurt. While the new British fantasy has its ardent defenders (of whom I am one), it has its critics (of whom I am one). Cutting those edges and pushing, spindling, and mutilating those envelopes will take you far, but only so far. Steph Swainston's debut exemplifies both the best and worst traits of this generation of storytellers. On the one hand, her writing has a gripping immediacy, engrossing you in her world before you know what's hit you and deromanticizing fantasy tropes with a nonstop spectacle of drug-addicted heroes, indifferent gods, warriors who place self-interest over duty, and love not merely unrequited but scorned with a childlike cruelty. On the other hand...for god's sake! There's such a thing as cynicism overkill. And if I come away from The Year of Our War saying I admired it without particularly enjoying it, it's because I recognize in Swainston an author of undeniable artistry, who, at least in her first book, is making the mistake of trying a little too hard. I don't want to see her water her vision down, but with the slightest of improvements she could really find a following to embrace, rather than shy away from, her bleak visions.
The Year of Our War is set in the Fourlands, an island continent containing a number of kingdoms, over the whole of which rules an immortal emperor, San, and his coterie of fifty immortals. These have been chosen, we are told, from the best and brightest of the Fourlands, and granted immortality so that they can aid in the governance of the Fourlands in the absense of their god, who apparently got fed up with the place and has taken off. Immortality isn't the boon you might think it is, though. Anybody among the Fourlands' mortal species may challenge you, though few challenges are successfully won by the challengers. On top of that, the whole continent has a nasty pest control problem. Hordes of ravenous giant Insects, on loan from Starship Troopers, are taking over the place, destroying cities in their zillions, and all of the Fourlands' military might has been hard at work holding these bugs at bay for nearly 2000 years.
Our protagonist is Jant Comet, the only immortal — indeed, the only inhabitant — in the Fourlands who can fly, the result of his mixed parentage; his father belonged to the winged but flightless Awian race, his mother the mountain-dwelling and nearly animal Rhydanne. Evidently his flying is Jant's only qualification for joining the immortals (for whom he is San's messenger), as he has no other skills or redeeming qualities. He is addicted to a heroin-like drug called cat, a particularly strong dose of which sends him reeling into an alternate reality called the Shift. But no one else believes the Shift is anything but a hallucinatory state, as any mortal who takes enough cat to see the Shift usually has to overdose and die to do it. So the Shift is populated by numerous strange creatures and the spirits of dead drug addicts.
While it doesn't make the book fantasy's answer to Trainspotting, I thought this was a brilliant concept that Swainston didn't take to its fullest potential. She uses the Shift sparingly, which is wise, but given how the plot ultimately unfolds, there were some opportunities I thought she really missed. Can't go into details without too many spoilers; suffice it to say that while the Shift is pivotal in resolving the crisis of the Insects, its role could have been better utilized in several particulars.
Anyway, after a stunningly mounted opening battle scene in which the noble Awian king Dunlin — who desperately wants to prove himself to San and join the immortals — ends up Insect food, the story is off and running. Dunlin's brother Staniel turns out to be utterly craven, holing up in his castle, and prompting other mortal kings to seal off their own borders and concentrate on protecting their own lands rather than uniting their armies and taking the war to the Insects. What's more, Jant finds himself torn between growing internal feuds between some of the immortals, especially Mist and his wife Ata, that eventually spiral into open civil war. Needless to say, with factions of immortals and their armies fighting each other rather than the Insects, it isn't long before the bug situation is utterly out of control and total apocalypse looms over the land.
There really is something dramatically powerful in the unfolding tragedy of an entire country doomed by the self-serving short-sightedness of those who rule it. There's many a parallel to real life there, far too close for comfort. Swainston drives home the salient point that the immortals, and by extension those whom we expect to be the best and brightest among us, aren't necessarily the best and brightest, and that a gift like immortality wouldn't necessarily bestow wisdom and sagacity. Rather, it could highten the venality and mendacity of those who lust after power even more.
Strong stuff. Where the novel is weaker is in a number of plot points. For instance, Jant. It's entirely legitimate to have an unlikable protagonist for your story. Not everyone can be as noble as Frodo and Sam, after all. A flawed hero is usually even more powerful in the long run as he has more to overcome, and must work harder to resolve his character arc. But unlikable heroes should still be sympathetic, and Jant, though he eventually comes full circle, remains both unlikable and not terribly sympathetic through most of the book. The sheer contempt in which he is held by his fellow immortals doesn't make you warm to him; indeed, you understand how they feel.
Then there's a problem in that, out of fifty immortals, we only end up dealing with a small handful of them, and we're asked to believe that civil war between this one couple could topple the land. Not inherently unbelievable, but that still leaves about 45 immortals that Swainston doesn't introduce as characters. I couldn't help wondering why we didn't hear more of them other than that they were off fighting Insects far away, and why they didn't play a more prominent role. Surely more of them, as well as San, intervening in Mist and Ata's growing civil war could have nipped the whole thing in the bud and gotten the armies of the land united against the Insects more effectively than one lone and despised junkie.
Finally, towards the end of the book, San, for no good reason I can think of, gives Jant the onerous task of finding out where the Insects come from — a revelation that's painfully obvious. And I couldn't help thinking it was wildly unbelievable that, after fighting these bugs for millennia, this is a bit of intelligence that is only just now occurring to San! Nevertheless, the climax is great, and the book ends on a bravura note.
So The Year of Our War ends up a novel of strong, provocative themes and often intense drama, marred by a weak protagonist and some poor or insufficiently realized story issues. But over it all — and this is what I think will alienate many American fantasy readers, at any rate — rests a pall of gloom that is often effective (vide the scene where a fleet of soldiers sails along the coast, watching in silent disbelief at cities in flame as far as the eye can see) but grows wearying. You just want to slap the hell out of these stupid immortals. And you can be forgiven for wondering whether or not the Fourlands is really worth saving.
While SF fans have shown an eagerness to embrace dark, dystopian settings and themes, American fantasy fans as a rule rarely like being taken out of their comfort zone. The genre is called "fantasy" for a reason. People don't tend to fantasize about things that leave them feeling bleak and depressed. (The "darkest" that fantasy fans seem willing to go is the trendy vamperotic chic of Laurell K. Hamilton and her imitators, but even that's a faux darkness rendered safe by commercial acceptibility.) I'd agree this can be a limitation on the part of said fans, but the way to get them to broaden their horizons might not be with as aggressive a smackdown as this novel provides. I think the more daring readers among you ought to give The Year of Our War a try; you will be treated to some unforgettable imagery and more than a few powerful storytelling moments. But as long as Steph Swainston just doesn't care to play well with others, she'll have a hard time fitting in to American fantasy's safe neighborhoods.