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The Year of our War

by Steph Swainston

(Gollancz, £9.99, 304 pages, hardback, published 15 April 2004; ISBN 0 575 07005 6. Gollancz, £6.99, 369 pages, mass market paperback, 14 April 2005.)

Review by Meredith

This is a bizarre, baffling, baroque fantasy which has been highly acclaimed as the first novel by British author Steph Swainston.

This is fantasy on a completely different planet from those cover scanseemingly endless young people's heroic questing coming-of-age trilogies which stretch into 10 or 11 books. Instead of a medieval-type world, the setting of The Year of Our War is an odd, unclear mixture. The characters wear jeans and T-shirts, read newspapers and paperback novels, enjoy Marathon races. However, they also wear armour and fight with swords, bows and arrows, rule Manors and are ruled in turn from the Emperor's Castle.

In this strange world, a small elite clique of extraordinarily talented over-achievers are given the gift of Immortality by the Emperor. In turn they carry out his orders and impose his rule. The all-powerful figure of the Emperor is mysterious and elusive, even though in his rare appearances in the book he speaks and acts as any ordinary, reasonable person. How he gained Immortality himself is left unexplained, as is the method by which he can bestow this enormous gift on other people.

The Immortals are not, however, invulnerable. Unhurt, they might live for ever, but they can be killed. This is a particularly unfortunate leftover from their mortal state given that the novel opens in the midst of a lengthy, vicious war, the Year of Our War 2014.

The Emperor's people are fighting a desperate, rearguard war on all fronts against a species of ravening, ruthless giant insects. These move in huge swarms, are incomprehensible to humans, and presumably feel no individual emotions or motivations. Insect enemies are, of course, an SF stereotype: Ripley's Alien, the Buggers in Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, the bugs in Joe Haldeman's The Forever War. And, since everything else in The Year of Our War seems truly unusual and original, I feel that Swainston has deliberately used this SF trope in order to highlight the very uniqueness of the rest of her creation.

Confusingly, the Immortals each have several different names. For example, Jant appears to be the given name of the book's central character (it would be going too far to call him the book's 'hero'). Jant is also known as Messenger, which, because he is the fastest person known to the Emperor -- Jant's ticket to immortality -- is the role he fulfils in the Circle of Immortals. Other Immortals are known as Archer, the Sailor, etc. But, when a person is lucky enough to be made into an Immortal by the Emperor, it seems he or she also takes or is given yet another name, reminiscent of superhero comicbook characters. For example, Jant is called Comet, and other people are known as Lightning, Tornado, etc.

Again, I get the impression that the confusion of many names is deliberate. When you puzzle the system out and it begins to make sense, it does contribute another layer of richness to the book.

Jant is an outsider. Although everyone seems to have wings, only Jant's are functional, so that only he can fly. He is of Rhydanne birth, which somehow makes him low caste. But, like so much in the book, we never really know what it means to be Rhydanne. We get some tantalising hints here and there, and one flashback chapter of a particularly brutal episode in Jant's past, but it is not at all clear why he is the only person who can fly, or why Rhydanne are looked-down upon.

Jant the outsider still wants what everybody else wants: immortality, money, security, land, status, his beautiful wife and an occasional affair. His constant statements that he is different seem more to reassure or convince himself, since no-one in the circle of power treats him in any way as an inferior, nor does he behave at court any differently from the others.

The thing that really sets him apart -- and contributes to a major plot resolution -- is that Jant is a drug addict. The book is just as much about Jant's personal struggles with drug abuse, comparative poverty, the harshness of his upbringing and perceived prejudice as it is about a terrifying war with inhuman and implacable enemies.

Bringing to mind a richly woven tapestry, The Year of Our War does contain vague echoes of other fantasy novels which are similarly intense and complex. The ones which come to mind are all, for some reason, by British authors: The Malachia Tapestry by Brian Aldiss, M. John Harrison's Viriconium books, China Miéville's Perdido Street Station and The Scar. Like TYOOW, all also contain strong, tight writing and a generous use of language.

However, in many respects, The Year of Our War is like a tapestry with some threads missing. The main story concludes, but so much of the background is left mysterious and unexplained that the book is like a glimpse into a bigger, greater tale. This is not actually a criticism, just a comment. Swainston's achievement is that she makes us wonder.

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