The Year of our War
(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.)
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 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
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
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.
Elsewhere in infinity plus: