The Jub Jub Bird

A literary blog with fantasy tendencies

The Year of Our War – Steph Swainston


My first foray into the realms of New Weird and I’m developing the seeds of an analogy with the 1970s music scene.  In 1976 popular music was dominated by Prog Rock dinosaurs like Pink Floyd, Lead Zep and Genesis, bands who’d taken muso meanderings to unprecedented lengths and whole new levels of tedium.  Punk Rock was the jack-booted antidote, not just re-writing the musical rule-book but setting fire to it and stomping all over it with its size ten Dockers.  Out went the twenty minute wig-outs from classically trained musicians, to be replaced by three minute power chords by teenagers who barely knew one end of a guitar from the other.  The analogy doesn’t work entirely – for one thing, Steph Swainston clearly knows how to write – but the worst excesses of multi-volumed genre fantasy (stand up Robert Jordan), were clearly ripe for a thorough re-working by a new generation of bright young (cyber)punks.

Swainston’s literary skill notwithstanding, there’s a real sense of back-to-basics with The Year of Our War, her debut novel.   All but the barest exposition and description is jettisoned – Swainston has said that she consciously left it out as she doesn’t enjoy reading it herself – in favour of character and narrative.  Prose is tight and often colloquial, though generally more than merely functional; I was struck by the author’s ability to express everyday experiences in new and economical ways: ‘I yawned and stretched, decongealing’, on waking after a heavy night.  Furthermore, the Fourlands world itself looks and feels nothing like a traditional fantasy setting; characters wear jeans, read newspapers, take showers and use syringes to inject hard drugs.  This is something different: a leaner, grittier update on traditional fare.

Jant Shira is Comet, one of fifty immortals who represent the best that the Fourlands has to offer across various useful disciplines (fighting, archery, sailing, healing and so on).  God has left the building and the Emporer, in his capacity as caretaker manager, bestows immortality on the most outstanding of his subjects, to help tip the balance in the ongoing war against the invading insect hoard.  Comet is the Emporer’s messenger and Jant has been elevated to this position because he alone in the world, can use his vestigial wings to fly.  Jant is also addicted to Cat; a class A drug if ever there was one, which when taken in sufficient quantities, transports users to the Shift, a parallel world with insect problems of its own.  So far, so far out; Return to Rivendell this ain’t!

Swainston’s style has real potential to thrill.  Eschewing fantasy convention we cut straight to the action and experience the world viscerally, from inside Jant’s head; high in both senses, as he surveys terrain on the wing or escapes it all in the Shift.  Although the lack of exposition and profusion of new terms can be confusing at first, the narrative rattles on, unencumbered by scene-setting or unnecessary description.  For me though, the thrill isn’t enough.  While Jant’s character is portrayed in all its contradictory glory, other protagonists are little more than one-dimensional puppets – Lightning, the Archer, being the only possible exception here – not stereotypical exactly but appearing so briefly and acting so definitively, as to leave little room for depth or nuance.  Similarly, both worlds have been boiled down to a collection of names on a map, distinguished only by their ability to hold out against the insects, with little or no attempt to breathe life or individual character into different places.  Swainston has said that she prefers readers to be able to imagine the world for themselves but that’s not what does it for me.  I want to believe in these places and the people who inhabit them, I need more than white knuckle rides to get me there.

Worse still, I wasn’t convinced by the internal logic of the landscape, based on what little we are told.   You might characterize the Fourlands as a medieval-feudal society, with regional barons commanding loyalty from local peasant populations; fighting wars with bow and sword.  No trace of industrialisation or communication networks capable of manufacturing and distributing jeans, showers or syringes, for example.  I also found myself asking how, in a world where an entire race has vestigial wings, only one of them can fly?  And how individuals can be made immortal one moment and then un-made the next?  At first I applauded the attempt to do something different but by the end I was disappointed that the world as described was not capable of sustaining my belief in it.  The array of genuinely new concepts don’t mesh together convincingly, leaving me with the feeling that too many ideas are thrown into the mix, used as little more than alternative plot devices in an otherwise fairly standard tale of kingdom-under-threat-from-border-aliens; the New Weirdness theme pasted-on.  Perhaps this is the point in a fantasy world where realism isn’t what we’re here for and descriptive brevity is the intention?  Perhaps this is what New Weird is all about?  Yet China Mieville has said that the trick is to let your imagination run wild but then be rigorous in following through the implications: ‘to be both as incredible/impossible and as rigorous/scientific as possible. In which case, the cardinal sin isn’t to be a “fantasist” and use magic, but to be internally inconsistent, or to use either magic or “sf-nal” technology as a Get-Out-of-Plot-Difficulty-Free card.’  I’d echo that, for me even imagined worlds have to feel real, internal consistency transforms a collection of good ideas into a world I can believe in.

Mieville supplies the blurb for the cover of my copy of the Year of Our War, so he clearly enjoyed this more than I.  Perhaps I’m being too harsh on what is, after all, a debut novel.  There’s plenty of loose threads and story seeds to follow through on and maybe later installments will resolve some of my issues. Unfortunately I can’t say I’m eagerly anticipating the next book, which is a shame because there’s plenty to admire here. So where does this leave me when it comes to New Weird?  It’s far too early to draw any serious conclusions but I’m starting to see where the approach taken by Swainston (and the rest of the New Weird vanguard) might lead. In 1977 the original punk bands gave the whole scene a shot in the arm, but most of the really interesting music was made by those who came after, the so-called Post-Punks: Joy Division, Public Image Limited and Orange Juice for example.  Bands who took the energy and do-it-yourself ethos of the original movement but fused them with the best of the musical traditions that had gone before.  In doing so they created new and interesting directions for popular music without losing sight of the requirement to write good songs along the way.  There’s still plenty of scope for writers to break the fantasy mould but I’d like to see it done in a more coherent and fully realised way than here.

August 17, 2009 Posted by | Reviews | | 2 Comments