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The Year of Our War
Steph Swainston
Victor Gollancz, 304 pages

The Year of Our War
Steph Swainston
The Year of Our War is Steph Swainston's first novel.

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A review by Martin Lewis

The Fourlands have been at war for the last two thousand years, ever since God left the world. Despite the fact that the war against the Insects is such an integral part of life and it gives the calendar its name, a state approaching equilibrium has been achieved. The Insects are separated from the three sentient species of the world by the Wall, a barrier of masticated detritus. From time to time, the cancre of the Wall is lanced to drain the Insects into corrals and killing floors where they can be slaughtered. The book opens with just such an event, a messy assault lead by Dunlin Rachiswater, the King of Awia. During the attack and with his blood up, Rachiswater plunges through the Wall with a group of his men to take the battle to the Insects. Confronted by the inexhaustible multitude of the enemy, he is predictably, and grievously, wounded . His companion (and our extremely interesting narrator) Jant Shira provides him with a fatal overdose of scolopendium to ease his pain and this ambiguous act of charity proves to be the catalyst for the events that follow.

Jant has the drug with him because he is addicted to it, with its attendant opiate and hallucinogenic properties. He is also a vain, feckless immortal. The Emperor, God's representative, has ruled the Fourlands for two thousand years aided by a Circle of fifty Eszai, each embodying a specific skill, that he has raised up to immortality. Jant is the conduit for all that happens in the novel since he is the Messenger. His position in the Circle is unassailable because he has a unique ability: he can fly. Awains look like angels, with a magnificent and useless pair of wings on their backs. The other two species are the Rhydanne (lean, cat-reflexed mountain dwellers) and the Morenzi (bog standard humans -- somewhat lumpen in this setting). As the mixed-species rapespawn of Awian and Rhydanne, Jant's twin genetic inheritances mean that he is light, strong and quick enough to actually use his wings. We follow him as he hurtles about Fourlands, outstripping the other characters and linking their disparate kingdoms and manorships. His gift is much in demand because Rachiswater's death marks an escalation in the intensity of Insect activity. As they encroach into Awia, the uneasy status quo is replaced by a struggle for the future of civilisation.

Like Jant himself, the novel is always in a rush. At times it feels that, like a digital movie, it has been compressed and, as a side effect, there is a slight stuttering of the narrative. The Year of Our War wraps up astonishingly quickly given that it chronicles the most important events in the Fourlands for two millennia. Much is left unsaid and it seems the reader is not only expected to read between the lines but read the sequel. In this respect the Emperor goes beyond an enigma to being a placeholder. Book bloat is a particularly irksome fact of modern genre publishing but big does not always mean bloated (Perdido Street Station springs to mind) and the book really could do with an extra hundred odd pages. The subplots in particular suffer from this lack of room.

Despite this haste the book is a joy to read, it is bursting at the seams with ideas. The Year of Our War is the first book that makes you believe New Weird actually is a movement, rather than a bunch of books China Miéville likes. A Miéville quote appears prominently on the cover where he describes the book as "thoughtful, exuberant, incredibly inventive, funny but never whimsical or mannered." This is true and it doubles as a kind of manifesto pledge for New Weird.

Copyright © 2004 Martin Lewis

Martin Lewis reviews for The Telegraph And Argus, The Alien Online and Matrix, the newsletter of the British Science Fiction Association. He lives in North London.

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