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No Present Like Time

by Steph Swainston

(Gollancz, £9.99, 317 pages, hardback, published 30 April 2005.)

Review by Stephen Palmer

Steph Swainston's debut work The Year Of Our War drew many good reviews, and cover scanplaced the author in an enviable position, that of feted newcomer to the field of fantasy. But this position can also be uncomfortable, since it requires the author to come up with a second novel of equal, if not better quality.

This new novel takes place in the same milieu as the debut work, that of the Fourlands, a country under attack from the appalling Insects. Ruling the Fourlands is the immortal San and his immortal cohorts, one of which, Jant (or Comet), was the lead character of the earlier work--a winged messenger with a penchant for mind-altering drugs.

The novel begins with a Challenge to the position of San's Swordsman. To everyone's amazement, the Challenger wins, becoming immortal in the process. But Gio, the defeated man, leaves with a black face and the threat of trouble to come. This fallen man's actions constitute the plot of the novel, as webs of intrigue develop. Meanwhile, far away, an island previously unknown to the Empire has been discovered--San wants his cohorts to investigate it. So a small group sets out on the good ship Stormy Petrel, discovers the island, accidentally releases an Insect, then returns, to find the fallen Gio attacking San's castle. Battle, mystery, swordplay and much intrigue follow. Was it coincidence that Mist found the beautiful island so easily? Why was an Insect aboard her ship? What are San's true motives, given the ancient history of the islanders discovered by Jant in a mystic tome?

This is a fantasy like no other, and, as such, is to be lauded. There are no elves, prophesies or magic cloaks. The publishers (who must also be lauded) have acquired a promising new author in Steph Swainston. Her writing is very good. One test of this is the book's single erotic scene. Sex is notoriously difficult to write, but Swainston, if I might be allowed to use the phrase, pulls it off admirably. But good writing is worthless if not underpinned by character and plot. The plot is there, albeit rather slow. The characters are compelling. I found Jant's addictions unconvincing and Tern's infidelity too convenient, but that is no more than nit-picking, as is my dislike for the jarring intrusions of modernity--beef curries, 'Club 18-Infinity' T-shirts and the like. Some marvellous images combine with quality workmanship throughout this work.

My one difficulty is with the core of this book. It is like receiving a marvellously baked cake of wonderful appearance and delicious taste, but not knowing why the sender sent it. At the end of the book, with Tern and Jant friends again, I thought: "This is great stuff, but why did she write it?" Perhaps the theme is that of eden ruined by colonialism, or perhaps it is something else. Possibly, there is no theme at all--though that could be me missing the point.

Having said that, this is a book I recommend.

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