The Year of Our War by Steph Swainston
Gollancz (UK) HCVR: ISBN 0575070056 PubDate: 04/15/04
Review by Iain Emsley
304 pgs. List price $ 9.99
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“The New Weird”, as it is seems to have settled into being called, has engaged readers, reviewers and critics alike in combat about whether it exists or is just the latest art house take on the genre of fantasy. To my mind this is a good thing. Fantasy has, for far too long, been left to stagnate in the swamps of self-righteousness and self-satisfaction; a far cry from the state as described in the editorial of Sterling and Gibson's Cheap Truth 'zine (Google it, if you have to, but read it on the web). Despite varying editorials in The Third Alternative magazine, the attention has focused upon the astounding work of China Miéville and, to a lesser extent, M. John Harrison really until two publications. Firstly, KJ Bishop's delightfully surreal The Etched City (reviewed here by John Berlyne in our January issue) and the debut novel from Steph Swainston, The Year of Our War.
The cover of the Swainston will give you a hint about the joy and the symbolist nature of this book. The soaring figure - our erstwhile 'hero', Jant,- entices the reader in between the pages with its intriguing position – are we viewing a joyous transcendence or the moment of bittersweet triumph as Icarus reaches out to the sun before plunging into the watery depths? Jant is one of the Eszai, an elite of Immortals, who have been fighting against the Insects for centuries. As Jant is the only Immortal who can fly, he is entrusted with discovering the secrets of the Insects and finding a way to defeat them. There is, however, one drawback - his drug addiction. He is, in all fairness, a thoroughly beautiful and charming rogue, but one that you really would not trust or wish to spend any time with – a gorgeous car accident to rubber neck. In the mist of his struggle with the drug, he negotiates court politics and distrust of the Immortals as well as his own personal demons and lovers. Jant must bridge the gap between the living and the dead in his drug induced visits to an inverted Hell (or is it Heaven?) and persuade them not to force the Insects into the living world for the dead are not laid to rest but seethe with anger.
What Swainston does with aplomb is to create fantasy creatures who have very human lives and failings from abuse of the self to others. There are, in too many fantasy societies, societies which idealise the unchanging, ever static and perfect but the New Weird has brought life back to the actual characters. They weep, hate and love with a reality that has been long absent. The societies change and move with enough individual opposition and they make mistakes (some tragic, some not) but they change. This new literature of fantasy is political in the sense that it sets up an opposition. It challenges the notion that society is static or unchanging, but it is not political in the sense of a play by Brecht. The author's own leanings may not come into play behind the novel but they are not entirely driven by those agendas. Miéville and Harrison are masters of the wider picture but Swainston focuses upon the individual.
What is also apparent is that The New Weird harks back to the New Wave and the early Twentieth Century Writers in that it draws from a variety of sources. The Year of Our War moves from current fantasy to Angela Carter and William Burroughs. It is in this way a return to the earlier values of the genre – that it is fantasy, not cliché. It revels in its oddness but has no problems with not delivering easy solutions or even staying within strict genre guidelines. It is fantasy with no delineation, able to move in and out of what it wants to be without fear or prejudice. Weirdness abounds and it is good.
The Year of Our War must rate as the debut of the year and promises so much more in the future. It is one of the few novels that is out on the liminal edges. It resists easy tagging. Fantasy now has a subset of writers who are willing to tackle their concerns and to write excitingly. It has a mission but it also does things because they are endlessly “cool”. Now what more reason do you need to go out and buy this book?