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The Year of our War

by Steph Swainston

(Gollancz, £9.99, 290 pages, hardback, published 15 April 2004. Gollancz, £6.99, 369 pages, mass market paperback, 14 April 2005.)

Review by John Toon

Jant Shira can fly. He's the only person in the world who can -- thanks to his halfbreed ancestry he has the wings of an Awian, but cover scanthe slender frame and fast legs of a Rhydanne. His unique talent has won him the position of Messenger in the Emperor's circle of immortals, an elite group of specialists intended to lead the people of the Fourlands in war against the mindless Insects, giant creatures that have come sweeping down from the north, destroying all in their path to make their nests. Instead the immortals fight each other, bound by loyalties and grievances centuries old. Jant has to mediate between his peers while orchestrating the fight against the Insects, and dealing with his addiction to a drug that literally sends him to another world.

In one sense, it's a good thing when a book defies easy description. In another sense, it's an utter pain in the arse when you're supposed to be reviewing it. The dust jacket blurb likens The Year of Our War to the work of Mervyn Peake and China Miéville. (Miéville, who is quoted on the cover, just says it's very good.) I'd say only parts of the novel bear comparison to Miéville, specifically the parts in which Jant visits the Shift, the drug-world which may or may not be only a hallucination, because it's there that we see the same rich riot of lifeforms and the same centrality of the city. For the most part the novel is, perhaps, closer to Peake: a baroque study of character dynamics, of the microcosmic politics between the immortals. The War chunters on in the background, providing backup impetus throughout, but the main crisis of the novel comes when one of the immortals is challenged by his wife, who has herself been made immortal by marriage but who wants to be recognised on her own merits, in the same field of speciality as her husband. A battle to the death must ensue, and all the while the world tumbles around the ears of this self-absorbed couple as the Insects march on unchecked.

Mere commentary can't do this book justice. Its atmosphere, intricacy and craftsmanship -- astonishingly well-honed for a debut novel -- should speak for themselves. The imaginative power Swainston has put into The Year of Our War is phenomenal; it deserves to be read, that's all there is to it.

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