Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Steph Swainston - The Year of Our War

I wanted to ask the Emperor how life was, back when god walked the earth. What did it really look like? Sound like? What did it mean to live when everybody knew everything? While San wrote, the pen scratching, I tried to imagine existence with god nearby, enjoying its creation, when there was no Insects, no Castle – this two-thousand-year-old stone, just lush grass. The Fourlands does not really belong to us – it is god’s playground; god gave us responsibility for its creation, which we have failed to defend.

As ever, San read my mind. Almost imperceptibly, he said, “Once there was peace.

The Year of Our War is a book that, at first, looks just about as generic as fantasy can get. We’ve got a (literally) faceless, inhuman enemy; we’ve got an immortal protagonist who can fly and, due to his ability to access the Shift, may be instrumental in the war against the Insects; we’ve got a series of squabbling, immortal lords, generally far more interested in increasing their own fortunes than in banding together and actually accomplishing something; and, to cap it all off, we’ve got a semi-divine Emperor ruling over the whole thing. And yet, The Year of Our War is anything but a traditional fantasy. The novel is set apart both by the excellent characterization and first person prose of its main character, Jant, and by its interesting take on immortality.

Now, I’ve seen some people say that Jant is a poor character because of his weak personality. This is absolutely baffling to me. It’s true that Jant is not the driving force behind most of the events of the book, but since when does a character not being a traditional hero invalidate their depth? Jant’s very much the junior among the immortals of the Emperor’s Circle, and he is constantly dragged into the schemes of the older, more powerful, and more forceful immortals. Since before his time in the Circle, he has used the hallucinogenic scolopendium. His drug use is one of the few things that sets him apart amongst the immortals, and his habit has, if anything, worsened. It hasn’t, however, given him a degree of control over his own life; instead, he’s just added yet another master yanking him in yet another direction. One of the only times he’s ever taken direct control of something in his life was to commit a terrible crime that he now regrets. He’s conflicted, intelligent, and immensely self centered. He is absolutely oblivious to the feelings of those around him, something never more obvious than the scenes with his wife, Tern. All of that points to a deep, realistic character to me, even if he’s not the easiest to always cheer along with.

Jant isn’t always the most honest, nor knowledgeable of narrators. When one of his ideas backfires, he rarely admits guilt. Any events that took place without him present might as well not have happened, as far as his recollections are concerned. This gives the book a meandering feel at times, because sub plots are dropped and resumed almost at random. This can be annoying, yes, but it also gives the book a more lifelike feel, one that timelier pacing would be unable to provide. Paradoxically, the focused nature of the narrative is what lends The Year of Our War its sense of scale. When Jant returns to an area unmentioned for a hundred pages, only to find it burned to the ground, it’s apparent that the war with the Insects is bigger than any one person can comprehend.

The thematic crux of The Year of Our War is the immortality of the Circle. Though at first it seems to be handled in a comic book sense, where immortality and blessing are simply means to kill monsters better, it soon becomes apparent that the longevity of the Fourlands’ rulers dictates every aspect of their culture. This is explored in what is by far the book’s most interesting sub plot, Swallow’s quest for immortality on the basis of her musical skills. When she goes up to the emperor, he says:

“Do you think music requires an immortal guardian, as Lightening controls the skill of archery? Would it better if music was left to change and develop as future people wish?”

Since its policy makers are immortal, the Fourlands have essentially stagnated. This isn’t a Warhammer-esque stagnation, where progress is lost forever, but, as long as the immortals reign over their disciplines, true progress cannot take place. How could a musketeer outperform the god of archery, and, if he could not, how could the invention ever take hold in such a society? The immortals, however, only control the arts of war, and the rest of the society can progress at a standard pace. This leads to the interesting (though occasionally hard to swallow) existence of a society where people wear T-shirts and kill each other with swords.

This stagnation extends to characterization as well as to setting. One of the major complaints that I’ve seen about The Year of Our War is that the supporting characterizations are shallow. I don’t completely agree in all cases, but I’ll admit they have a point – I just think the one dimensionality of certain characters is intentional (though, as I’ve said on here before, interesting thematic decisions don’t always translate well to enjoyable reading). When a character becomes immortal, they’re frozen at whatever age they happen to be at, arresting their own development:

“How old have you been for two hundred years, Comet?”

“Twenty-three. But I’ve grown wiser!”

“Have You? I think it would be a shame to deny the Fourlands the music she would make if she were to grow more mature. When she gains more experience, her music will be so improved that the rest of the world will learn from it.”

Of course, the members of the Circle don’t think that they’ve been treading water for thousands of years:

Many [immortals] are jaded and love innovation; some of us, like myself, invent to make our lives easier and to prove we are the best specialists in our various professions. The more confident immortals embrace novelty and would welcome Swallow’s continual creation.

While at first convincing, Jant’s words soon ring hollow. First of all, the end of the first sentence is very telling: to prove we are the best specialists in our various professions. So, while Jant may pass his time by inventing gliders, you’re not going to see Lightening rendering himself obsolete by inventing (or even endorsing) handguns. The older immortals are all trapped in their own pasts. Lightening still squabbles with Mist over territorial disputes forgotten before any living mortal was born; Mist is unwilling to acknowledge Ata’s innovations, because something that daring would be unthinkable in the more traditional time that he’s a product of.

The Insects, a faceless enemy that endlessly encroaches on the borders of the Fourlands, drive almost every event in the novel, but they’re probably the least interesting part of it. They’re suitably terrifying off screen, of course, but the Circle’s prowess defangs them a tad in direct confrontation. Really, the main problem facing the human armies seems to be a lack of arrows, and, as such, I have a simple plan for victory: all T-shirt factories have hereby been taken over by the state, and they will produce either A. arrows, or B. quivers to hold said arrows. If every archer brings, say, fifteen quivers, instead of the customary four arrows, I’m confident the Insects would cease to be such a big deal.

And then there’s the Shift, an altogether different realm in which the rules of reality are totally different, accessed by overdosing on scolopendium. I don’t understand how there are so few Fourlanders there, if an overdose is really all that’s needed, and if scolopendium is as often abused as Jant’s flashbacks would have us believe, but that’s a miniscule point. The Shift is a breeding ground for the bizarre, and it would be easy to let it grow whimsical to the point of irrelevance, but creatures like the unsettling Vermiform insure that there’re some teeth in the whole affair, and I’m looking forward to learning more about what the hell it is in future volumes.

The Year of Our War is an excellent debut. I’ve seen a whole host of reviews that have called it a Miéville clone, and I just don’t really get that. It’s about a self centered character who flies, so alright, I guess that’s a superficial similarity to Perdido Street Station. They’re both New Weird, but I don’t think genre’s enough to acquire rip off status. They’re both concerned with questions of immortality and an eternal war…oh, wait, no; they’re not. Maybe I’m being silly, but I don’t know how a book can be a pastiche while exploring wholly different themes. The Year of Our War has got some flaws, some of which are easily excusable and some of which are not, but it makes up for all of them with its tight focus and interesting ideas. If you’re interested in New Weird, this is something you need to check out.


  1. I've had this on The Stack for the better part of the past three years. I started reading it when I first got it, but I put it down because I just wasn't getting into it. Had all intentions of getting back to it though and I will probably do so sooner or later because it is sitting there giving me a death stare and has been for some time now.

    Good review.

  2. Interested to see what you think, though (debatably intentionally) I doubt it'll do much to convince you that it's possible for side characters to actually have depth.

  3. Oh, I know it is possible for side characters to have depth. I just don't see it often, which is why it has gotten to the point that I no longer hold it against a book if it is lacking in such.

    Actually, for the most part, having read it recently and thus using it as an example, Neuromancer does really well in fleshing out secondary characters. Graham Joyce, when not overly focused on his main characters, tends to do really well with this, too.

    Yeah, it is completely possible for side characters to have depth. I just wish I happened across more books that actually featured it.

  4. Unless you meant to say that the side characters have little depth... in which case... I'm used to it. :P