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The Year of Our War
Steph Swainston
HarperCollins Eos, 385 pages

The Year of Our War
Steph Swainston
Steph Swainston is a qualified archaeologist with a degree from Cambridge and a research degree. She worked as archaeologist for six years, working on the dig that researched the oldest recorded burial site in the UK, before working as an information scientist. The Year of Our War is her first novel.

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SF Site Review: The Year of Our War

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A review by Rich Horton

There can be pitfalls in coming to a book that has already received considerable notice. So it was for me with Steph Swainston's The Year of Our War, which has been received with extreme enthusiasm upon its 2004 UK publication. (And, indeed, Swainston has just been nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Author.) Now the book has a US edition. Had I come to the book without preconceptions, I suspect I would have been impressed by it as a promising first novel. But in the face of the praise it has received my first reaction is "Is that all?" In sum, The Year of Our War is an interesting book, with some fascinating ideas and images, but it is also a book that doesn't really work. The prose is acceptable but not outstanding, occasionally a bit clunky. The plot is rather a mess, with a terribly disappointing ending. (I wonder if the rest of the story that seems necessary is being held back as a sequel.) And the worldbuilding is a mix of some really neat stuff with some slapdash and unfinished-seeming aspects. None of this is surprising in a first novelist, and the weaknesses are just those things that I suspect will be much improved in subsequent outings.

The story is narrated in the first person by Comet Jant Shira, one of a Circle of Immortals in the Fourlands. The Immortals, or Eszai, are so created by the Emperor, and their duty is to help the Mortals (Zacsai) in the absence of God, who is taking time off. The Eszai have existed for about 2000 years, and Comet is the youngest. Each Eszai is deemed to be the best in the world at a certain vital talent. Comet is the Messenger. He is very fast, for two reasons: his half-Rhydanne ancestry, and his ability to fly. (There appear to be three interfertile species in the Fourlands: humans, the winged but non-flying Awians, and the near-feral Rhydanne. Comet is half-Awian/half-Rhydanne, and apparently the combination allows him to fly.)

All this is quite interesting on the face of it. Add to this the encroaching Insects, who have already occupied much former human or Awian territory, and who continue to advance. The War of the title is against the Insects. The novel opens with the Awian King, Dunlin Rachiswater, leading a suicide charge against the Insects. This leaves his throne in the hands of his very weak brother. His brother's disastrous mistakes lead to further Insect advances, which also lead to dissension in the ranks of the Eszai, particularly among two women who each wish to become Immortal in their own right, rather than by marriage.

The story also concerns Jant Shira's addiction to a drug called Cat. Much of this is a reasonably standard addiction story (with flashbacks to his pre-immortal life, his troubled upbringing as a bastard halfbreed, his love for his Awian wife and his lust for a Rhydanne girl). But the drug has a unique affect on him: it sends him to the Shift, apparently a parallel world, where he meets some already dead friends, including Dunlin Rachiswater. The sections in the Shift are gloriously fascinating, linguistically inventive and thoroughly weird in the best way. But they are a brief part of the book, and not really used very well. Other aspects of the plot are dribbled away -- the musician Swallow's quest for membership in the Circle is key for a while then more or less dropped, while the sailor Ata's feud with her Immortal husband takes over the end of the book. All these aspects promise to be interesting, but the book's structure doesn't really properly resolve any of them.

What we end up with, then, is a book that is rather less than the sum of its often fascinating parts. As presented, it drags for much of its length, and (for this reader at least) The Year of Our War was excessively confusing. And as I said the end is flat and inconclusive. That said, Swainston shows a really intriguing imagination, and there is every reason to hope that her imagination coupled with improvement in her craft will result in some first-rate work in the future.

Copyright © 2005 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at

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