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Swarmthief's Dance:
Book One of The Swarmthief Trilogy

by Deborah J Miller

(Tor, £10.99, 314 pages, trade paperback, published 2 September 2005.)

Review by Lawrence Osborn

cover scanPre-modern society? Check. Heroic swordsmen? Check. Sinister sorcerers? Check. Major viewpoint character living in humble circumstances who discovers that he has remarkable powers? Check. Someone casually browsing the shelves of their local bookshop might be forgiven for thinking that this was the first volume of yet another formulaic fantasy trilogy.

However, the casual browser would be mistaken. This novel also has a good deal that sets it apart from and above run-of-the-mill formula fantasy. I was particularly struck by the originality of one of the central ideas of the story. Invertebrates don't usually play a significant role in speculative fiction. Yes, they sometimes appear as the villains in a certain type of science fiction. But in fantasy they are usually relegated to the role of irritant or minor evil (e.g. Shelob in The Lord of the Rings). By contrast, Debbie Miller's Swarms play a crucial role in her story. The Swarms -- swarm intelligences consisting of many thousands of individual insects, which under the right circumstances can coalesce to form a single being akin to a giant dragonfly -- are magical creatures created by a sorcerer-priest to be the mounts of the warriors whose task it is to maintain the theocracy's control over Myr. However, as the story unfolds it becomes clear that they are also much more than that.

The story operates on two levels, reflected in the unusual device of having a double prologue. The first part of the prologue introduces us to the world of Myr where most of the action will take place. We are introduced to the Swarms and to two children who will become major characters in the story that is to unfold later. Impossibly, one of the Swarms lays an egg and the child who witnesses it is banished. However, before we can get our bearings, we are thrown back aeons into the shadowy realm of the gods, where Rann the God of the Underworld is hopelessly in love with Aria, one of the Nulefi. She rejects him and he is humiliated by her sisters, so he embarks on a plan which should lead her to be banished to his Underworld for all eternity. But instead of accepting the judgement of the high god Herrukal, the Nulefi rebel and to all intents and purposes are destroyed.

That brings us back to the mundane world of Myr. Since the gods are woven inextricably into the fabric of existence, they cannot be completely obliterated. In time, the Nulefi begin to take form again, but they do so in a world where worship of the true gods is on the wane. Angered by this turn of events, Herrukal has determined to destroy Myr, so Rann is forced to intervene in the world of mortals in order to save the Nulefi for himself before the apocalypse. The children from the first prologue, now grown up, find themselves on opposite sides of a conflict closely connected both with the Swarms and with Rann's machinations.

I enjoyed the book. Debbie Miller writes well, which is hardly surprising since she already has one successful fantasy trilogy under her belt (published under the pseudonym Miller Lau). Her descriptive writing is particularly good, with passages that effectively painted mental pictures of the Swarms, the sky temple, the sin eater and many of the other characters and places. The characterization is strong, perhaps because the story is written from several viewpoints, making us conscious of the complexity of the major characters. And there is plenty of action, perhaps even too much given the relative shortness of the book.

My main complaint is that it suffers from the besetting weakness of an individual volume of a trilogy. The story is simply not complete in itself. By the end of the volume none of the major plot strands developed in the course of the 300-odd pages has really been resolved. But that complaint aside, it is a very good read -- I await volume 2 (Swarmthief's Treason) with anticipation and more than a little impatience.

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