Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Year of Our War

The quick and dirty: 
Rating: 3.5 stars
Length: A touch long but speedy nonetheless (400 pages)
Publication: February 1, 2005 from Eos Books
Premise: Jant Comet is a member of the Emperor's Circle, one of the chosen fifty who cannot die. He is the only person in the Empire who can fly, and he uses that talent as Messenger to relay everything from diplomatic concerns to battle orders in the war against the Insects who constantly threaten to expand the sterile Paperlands throughout the Empire. When the heroic King Dunlin of Rachiswater dies in battle, his younger brother's cowardice starts to pull the delicate structure of the Empire to the edge of destruction.
Warnings: Sex with very dubious consent in the backstory, sexual harassment, a few sequences of intense gore, and graphic depiction of needle-based drug use and side effects
Recommendation: Give this one a try just for the sake of all the unusual flavors of fantastical oddness that it pulls together. None of the characters are loveable, but the world they inhabit stands as a character in its own right. 

What makes the worldbuilding and structure so beautifully funky:

The premise of invaders kept at bay behind a wall by a struggling kingdom or empire feels overdone in the hands of many authors, but Steph Swainston elegantly inverts many of the normal tropes. These Insects, not the people of the Empire, built the wall; they move forward, cover everything in a paperlike coating that burns only difficulty, and build new walls to prevent the humans from counterattacking and reclaiming the land. Swainston also angles away from the traditional quasi-medieval setting that novels of this sort tend to have, choosing to incorporate traditional castles and weapons as well as more Victorian-era innovations like newspapers and harpsichords. Technology has swept along to create some truly odd juxtapositions; seeing ancestral swords on the same page as drug syringes keeps the setting from falling into anything too predictable. Swainston also tends to be roughest with the most traditionally heroic characters; Dunlin, the brave mortal king who tries a bolder method of attacking, dies early on after revealing his longing to become one of the immortals. Jant, ever the addict, gives him a deathbed overdose of scolopendium that sends him into Shift, an entirely different plane of reality that functions according to its own surreal rules.

The Circle, the centerpiece of the worldbuilding, holds up beautifully. Emperor San was immortal long ago and found a way to share that immortality with others in the cause of keeping the world safe for a god who has left but is planning to be back one day. In order to survive that long, everyone--particularly the Eszai, the immortals of the Circle-- has to fight the Insects and hold them back. The Emperor has to choose who lives and dies, and any immortal who falters can be challenged for their seat as Archer or Messenger or what have you. The price of failure is a sudden drop back into the flow of mortal time, so competition is fierce; the Emperor has some measure of sympathy for the people under his care, but his devotion to holding the land together means that he's willing to sacrifice any individual person if he deems it necessary. Blending such a zealous will to survive with the infighting and worrying in the circle adds to the feeling of decayed greatness that permeates the novel.

Despite the decline and related sense of despair that Jant feels over past mistakes, the high moments really shine with both power and realism. Jant is clear about the uniqueness of his flying gift, and he loves some of the daredevil moves, but he's also terrified of drowning and thus of the ocean rescue that he has to perform. The battles are intense, particularly the final one when the Empire has to rise to meet the largest invasion force they've ever seen. People die and nearly die everywhere, often senselessly and in horrible pain, but it's a battle and there's never time to stop. Important and likeable characters die or receive horrible wounds; they know the risks that they're taking, and the ones who make it through mostly seem grateful to have beaten the odds. These people have been fighting the Insects for thousands of years, and they don't mistake the fierceness of battle for a bright and shining reason to celebrate. They rejoice at respites, or at reclaiming parts of the Paperlands, and the sense of an eternal war really sets in as real by the end of the book.

Some of the characters seem familiar to the point of being archetypes, particularly Lightning and Swallow. Lightning is the Circle's Archer and has lived for many centuries, holding himself aloof from the petty emotional squabbles that many of the Circle members choose. At first he seems to be an authority figure, bound up in tradition and honor, but he acquires a softer and oddly helpless side when he falls in love with Swallow, a mortal musician. He offers to marry her and thus give her immortality, but she is determined to gain entrance to the Circle on her own merits before she will consider the offer. Both of them are proud and stubborn, though she is only twenty next to his centuries, and the mortal/immortal romance carries poignant reminders of how those stories tend to end. Both of them manage to stand away from the shadows of their archetypes, demonstrating murkier motives and less purely honorable actions than they should. These flaws make both characters far more interesting, and their romance remains one of the high points of the novel.

Jant's addiction and Shift together comprise another one of the novel's most compelling points. Alcoholic protagonists are fairly trendy in fantasy at this point, particularly urban fantasy, but having one take the equivalent of magical heroin places him somewhere in a grey area very early on in the book. His cravings are written well; everything from begging for more to having trouble finding a vein to looking for a stash that friends have hidden comes off as a real and painful addiction, not a plot device to net more sympathy. Craving more injections often puts him in danger or exposes him to contempt from people he respects, and yet he can do little more than desperately promise over and over that he'll quit soon.The drug feels glorious, and his trips to Shift fascinate him enough to bring him back.

Shift itself is home to some of the best flights of wild fancy and wordplay, all sorts of things to pull you into that reality even as you're chuckling at how ridiculous the whole thing is.On the book's first trip, Jant sees a fiber-toothed tiger, enormous and potentially deadly....if its teeth weren't made of string. The streets are literally paved with gold that it's worth your life to try to steal, the restaurants serve pizza and burgers, and people sell secondhand sabers in the shadow of dirigibles. It glows with more life than the Fourlands, and the novel might have been stronger had it spent more time really moving between the worlds instead of occasionally hopping over to Shift for plot points; only Jant as an immortal can take the normally-fatal overdose necessary to hop realities and return, and his role as a bridge could have been so much more compelling.

The red pen: 

The epic scale that makes parts of the book so breathtaking unfortunately tends to leave details and smaller struggles drifting disjointedly. Although the Circle theoretically holds fifty immortals in addition to their spouses, we meet less than ten immortals, which leaves many them sitting there as invisible set dressing and not demonstrating what the Circle values. Swainston does a brilliant job of making the reader feel the way centuries slip by, but that also means that it's hard to care about anyone, let alone mayfly mortals. When we meet an ambitious hero, on some level it's clear that the narrative could skip another few decades in the next chapter without warning and reduce the mortal to dust; this makes relationships between mortals and immortals somewhat uninteresting unless they're married and sharing eternal life. Similarly, the sheer number of people who wander onto the stage and have two names and a title (in the finest tradition of Russian literature), all used interchangeably, makes it difficult to anticipate the plot twists. Many of them are surprising in their own right, but some of the confusion is due to how characters move on and offstage under different names that let you lose track of who's married to or lusting after or the protégé of whom.

That odd sense of detachment both lessens and increases during the battle scenes. When Jant thinks he's about to die as mortals die around him, he seems more vividly alive than he does at almost any other time; on the other hand, the sheer level of gore and intestines flopping about seems like Swainston is trying to use shock value as shorthand for grittiness and realism. There are some similarly awful moments in Shift, including one in which someone's eyeball is popped out of his skill by sentient worms. As shorthand for establishing that someone is dangerous goes, that really could have been a lot more subtle than the utter two-by-four that it was; next to Emperor San, who has the power to give and take immortality, everyone else seems a bit tacky with the threats by contrast.

Jant is supposedly caught between two women: Tern, his sophisticated and loving wife, and Genya Dara, a Rhydanne woman who he knows he should let go. Situations like this can be poignant or revealing under the right circumstances, but both women are in fact dull, just in different flavors. Jant makes a point of saying that he's not good enough for either of them, but this loses its luster when we learn that they're not exceptionally wonderful, he can just be an exceptional bastard. Tern is indeed beautiful and a ruling Governor in her own right, but we only see her bicker (and have sex) with Jant, and her defining character trait seems to be soft skin. Genya had the potential to be really interesting, since she's the only other Rhydanne we see, but she spends most of her time running, being Jant's lust object, vanishing for three hundred pages, and then providing a really uncomfortable backstory interlude. The short version: "Rhydanne sex is like that" is a really off-putting and flimsy excuse when it resembles rape that closely and when that's also the only sex the character in question has ever had with a Rhydanne.This bit of backstory really slides Jant dangerously close to the line between morally ambiguous and completely despicable, and crossing that line only tends to work with stronger-willed characters who embrace their own damnation.

Shift may be beautiful and bizarre compared to the Fourlands, but that beauty comes at the expense of serious exploration. Jant will often spend a page or two just describing the remarkable crowd scenes of different races and beings, each with different and bizarre motivations, but rarely do we actually get to see any of it in detail. Unlike the Nightside, Shift seems to keep most of its oddness behind glass; Jant looks at crowds and perhaps gives more detail about a single person among many, and that shallow sort of skimming makes the world seem more like a hallucination than a real place. A touch of that tone may be deliberate, given that no one else believes in Shift, but it needs more anchoring force to hold its own as a real universe.This is particularly true because Felicitia told Jant about Shift before Jant ever saw it for himself, and if some mortals can cross over and back without dying then it really ought to be at least somewhat common knowledge that the drug provides either a portal or a remarkably consistent set of hallucinations.

While the novel doesn't quite combine its parts into a seamless whole, those individual pieces are undeniably fascinating and make me want to go back and explore the rest of this trilogy one day. Many of the odder holes seem like the sort of thing that could be wrapped up in the future, and Shift may well grow into a more solid place over the course of later books. 

Prospects: The most recent Castle book, Above the Snowline, came out in 2010, and the author seems to be planning more.

Enjoyed this? Try: 
~Banewreaker by Jacqueline Carey. It owes a more direct debt to Tolkein, playing with the tropes of The Lord of the Rings and analyzing what good and evil mean in a world full of great powers, high ideals, and human failings. The style is more flowery than this is, but it fits. 
~The Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher. While there's no immortality to reckon with, the characters (except the protagonist) have a lot of magic to throw around while they fight the insectoid Vord from behind the wall. It's less surreal and despairing than this book, but there's a decent resemblance and I like them both. 

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