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Swarmthief's Dance
Deborah J. Miller
Tor UK, 314 pages

Swarmthief's Dance
Deborah J. Miller
Deborah J. Miller has been writing fiction for over twenty years. As Miller Lau, she's the author of the Last Clansman series. She's originally from Edinburgh, and lives in East Lothian with her husband.

Deborah J. Miller
Miller Lau
SF Site Review: Talisker
SF Site Interview: Miller Lau
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

Swarmthief's Dance opens a new trilogy from Deborah J. Miller.

Long ago, in punishment for the crime of offering immortality to a human, Aria, one of the six spirits known as the Nulefi, was banished to the underworld -- the realm of the god Rann, whose passionate advances Aria once spurned. But before Rann could do more than gloat, Aria's sisters did the unthinkable, and rose up to defend her. In wrath, the gods' leader, Herrukal, dispersed their spirits into the ether. But gods are eternal and indestructible. Even scattered, the substance of the Nulefi survived.

By tradition, the people of the world of Myr believe that the Swarms -- hordes of tiny insects that can be combined into a single, giant dragonfly entity through the agency of a substance called kyermah -- were created by the goddess Oshi. Really, though, they're a human artifice, brought into being through a combination of magic, prayer, and alchemy. Experimenting to improve the Swarms, their creator accidentally manages to trap within them the dispersed spirits of the Nulefi. Unthinkably, the Swarms begin to lay eggs, raising the possibility of new, natural Swarms whose nature and powers are unknown. To the church, this is heresy. Church officials race to obtain and destroy the eggs -- and to keep their existence hidden from the faithful.

But the first laying had a witness -- Simeon, a boy of the temple city. Branded a heretic when he confessed what he'd seen, his memory was removed and he was banished half a world away, given a new family and a new name: Vivreki. Desperate to learn about that first egg -- which was never found -- the church dispatches a Bakkujasi Swarm rider, the cruel and arrogant priest Cion Gezezi, to fetch Vivreki back. Viveki eludes capture, and with his brother Steif becomes a fugitive. Cion is sent on another mission, to investigate reports of a new egg; with him go his lover, Kilmer Torroshi, and Kilmer's wife-of-convenience, the Brengarmah warrior Asoori Pikresh. Meanwhile, the gods pursue their own agendas: Herrukal, angry at the weakening magical forces generated by worship in his central temple, sends an evil star to menace the world of Myr, and Rann, learning of the rebirth of the Nulefi, possesses the soul of the powerful church official Achios, the better to meddle in worldly affairs. As events and antagonists collide, a newborn Swarm -- the hatchling of that first egg -- flies in search of Vivreki, her savior.

All the elements of an enjoyable fantasy adventure are here: warring gods, powerful magics, exotic locations, dangerous quests, a large and varied cast of human and non-human characters -- even a smooth prose style and a knack for an evocative turn of phrase. Gods who meddle in human affairs are hardly new to fantasy, but Miller imparts an interesting twist by envisioning the gods not as world-creators but as somehow part of the substance of the world -- "Where the world begins," Rann says, "we also come into form, and none can truly say which blinks into existence first" -- and by making them, at least to some extent, dependent for their power on the worship of their human charges.

Yet these elements never quite coalesce into a coherent story. There's action aplenty, but much of the logical underpinning and character development needed to glue everything together -- and to make the reader care how it all comes out -- is absent. Miller conjures some vivid images of temples and towns and estates and deserts, but we find out almost nothing about the religion that goes with the temples (we don't even learn the full pantheon -- not good in a novel where the gods are major players), or the culture that goes with the towns and estates, or even the geography that goes with the deserts. The Swarms are a fascinating concept, but we aren't told why they were created, or what purpose they serve, other than ferrying the Bakkujasi around; it's not even clear why Vivreki's story about the egg should have been considered heresy, since apart from being the property of the church, the Swarms don't fulfill any obvious religious function. As for the characters, only Asoori and Achios are developed enough to be sympathetic; other characters are two-dimensional (especially Cion and Kilmer, who are supposedly locked in an intense relationship yet hardly seem to be aware of one another), behave in arbitrary ways dictated by the plot, or don't seem to have any particular reason to exist other than being part of the motley crew. Occasional inexplicable shifts into present tense, as well as the author's habit of chopping scenes into short segments -- sometimes as brief as a single paragraph -- are perhaps intended to impart immediacy, but only serve to push the reader out of the fictional frame.

It's not often one wants a fantasy novel to be longer, but Swarmthief's Dance cries out for at least another hundred pages of world- and character-building. With that, it might have been a really engaging book. As it is, the bones are there, but much of the flesh is missing.

Copyright © 2005 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel, The Burning Land, is available from HarperCollins Eos. For more information, visit her website.

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