No Present Like Time (Gollancz SF S.)
by Steph Swainston
Review by John Berlyne
Gollancz Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0575070064
Date: 21 April, 2005 List Price £9.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
The SF and Fantasy genres are often tempted it seems to identify their writers within the terms of some new movement. We've had the "Cyberpunks", the "Steampunks", the "New Wave" and lately the "New Weird" and Lord knows what else over the years. Steph Swainston, whose remarkable debut novel The Year of Our War romped away with universal praise (including a review by our own Iain Emsley), when it was released a year or so ago has been claimed by the "New Weird" crew as one of their own. This is no bad thing, though I'm not so sure that it makes any discernable difference or provides any context when it comes to the reading her work, or indeed to the marketing of it. What strikes me on reading her new novel, No Present Like Time is that whatever, if any, movement Swainston is part of, her work has such a powerful and startlingly original edge to it that it transcends such labels - here is a writer on the verge of starting her own movement.
There are any number of elements in Swainston's work that triumphantly display what a sharp and fresh a writer she is, and also how far she's gone in such a short time to counter the comfortably established fantasy tropes that have swamped the genre for decades. The punk aspect to this is clear in her rebellious counterculture take most clearly embodied in her protagonist Jant, the dreadlocked, drug addicted messenger to the immortal Emperor San of the Four Lands. Jant is, at heart, an archetypal rebel, but one made all the more interesting for his flaws. In The Year of Our War, we were introduced to the circle of the Eszai, a group of experts who have had immortality conferred upon them by the Emperor because they are simply the best at what they do. The mix is an interesting one - among the circle there is the Architect, the Healer, the Sailor, the Swordsman, the Strongman and the Messenger - Jant, who acquired his position by virtue of being the only person in the world to be able to fly, thus he is able to deliver his missives faster than anyone else. The immortals of the circle serve the people of the land, mainly by battling the infestation of huge ravenous insects, which continually threaten, but they are by no means superheroes. The Eszai can be killed or challenged and it is such a challenge to the Swordsman Gio that sounds the starting gun for No Present Like Time.
Swainston's exploration of what might happen to a bested and deposed Eszai is an ingenious development from the previous novel. After so long at the top of the food chain, the drop for Gio is long and hard and, not surprisingly, he does not handle it at all well. Running alongside this plot thread is another concerning the discovery of an inhabited island some three months sail from San's Castle. Jant is ordered to join a small group of immortals who are to travel to this island, known as Tris. He joins Mist (the Sailor), Lightening (the Archer) and the newly immortal Swordsman, Wrenn. This is utter hell for Jant, who hates ships and water - not surprisingly given that he's a creature of the air. His torment is exacerbated by his jealously over his wife Tern, who he (rightly) suspects is having an affair with Tornado - who is, unfortunately, the strongest man in the world!
All these problems cause Jant to revert to type and though he starts the novel clean and free from his "Cat" habit, it isn't too long before he's under its influence once more. Swainston neither condones nor condemns Jant's drug addiction and the author's choice of not leading the reader by the nose over this allows us the curious dichotomy of feeling both sympathy and disgust at Jant for this weakness.
During his spaced out episodes, Jant's addiction flips him into The Shift, a very strange and highly hallucinogenic world where he seems free to roam, and where we learn, if somewhat obliquely, that Swainston's universe is all somehow interconnected, the various worlds and lands linked by some kind of conduits through which the insects break and swarm through. Jant, it appears, can travel there via overdosing on scolopendium, but every time he does so, he faces the very real possibility of death. However, it's clear that with all the questions that The Shift raises about the world, it might also hold many of the answers, not least to the problem of the insects.
On arrival at Tris, things go horribly wrong. The republican nature of the government there is anathema to the immortals and their diplomatic skills are naive and clumsy. Matters are made worse when the captive insect brought along on the voyage as an example of the dangers faced by the Empire escapes and runs rampant through the island. The immortals bid a hasty retreat, foolishly leaving the insect behind them, but when they arrive home they find the deposed immortal Gio has raised an army and is challenging the age-old rule of the empire. When Gio learns that his rebellion is doomed, he himself makes for Tris, where he intends to rule.
Swainston packs a hell of a lot into No Present Like Time and there is no shortage of action and set pieces. Having been introduced to this eclectic and curiously contemporaneous setting, we learn more of its social structure and geography and its pretty interesting stuff. Jant remains an ambiguous, eloquent and hugely likeable protagonist - I particularly like the way that Swainston, writing in first person has Jant relate some beautiful purple prose only to follow it with some coarse remark. Throughout No Present Like Time, Swainston fills her narrative with some extraordinary passages which reveal the depth of her artistry...
"Flying is the most selfish pastime in the world. It's all I ever want to do. Flying is being alone but not lonely, swept up on the exhaust of the world: my wings and the ground two magnets pushing each other apart. The sky is more gentle than the touch of any lover, and gliding on a hot day is as effortless as sleep. I hold out my wings, supported on rounded air, and change direction with a tiny movement."
... this is really beautiful stuff and there's a level of such detailed understanding by the author of her characters, their habits and their flaws, that they can't help but be fascinating to the reader. During the daytime when I wasn't reading this novel, I found myself often thinking about Jant and his world - and that doesn't happen to me often!
It's a relief to me that after the incredible impact of her debut, Swainston has not suffered from second novel syndrome. No Present Like Time feels like a bridge leading the way to the final showdown due to us in book three, but it retains the power and depth of its predecessor. To be picky, I must mention the difficulty of getting my head around the scenes in The Shift - they are so bizarre as to confound and elsewhere in the novel there are moments of confusion when attempting to identify the immortals, who seem to go by several names each. It's also fair to say that the various dual scenes are by their very nature slightly repetitive, but all this is fluff when it comes down it. The net result here is a novel, indeed a series of novels, that truly breaks new ground on its own terms and needs no movement or bandwagon to climb upon in order to do it.