Year of Our War by Steph Swainston

December 10, 2006 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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Science fiction and fantasy are supposed to be genres that are completely wide open, where anything goes. Still, they each have typical trappings and often one can read an entire book without encountering anything remotely new or innovative. Then there are the books that seem like a breath of fresh air because they are packed with ideas that are not only fresh but interesting. Year of Our War is one of those books. It was very well received critically, and I think this is mostly attributable to the world Swainston created. Positing a world where everyone has wings would be interesting enough, but how much more interesting if the wings are vestigial and no one can fly…except the main character, something of a genetic freak with an abnormally light body for his strong wings. But Swainston isn’t done. Everyone has a usual three score and ten lifespan, except for the Circle, a group of Immortals kept alive through the magic of the mysterious Emperor because they are each paramount in some skill or discipline. They don’t age, but they can be killed, or lose the immortality by being surpassed in their specialty. All this in service to a millennia long “war” against an apparently mindless race of human-scale insects. It’s a fascinating backdrop, and I haven’t even gotten to the addictive drug that normally just gets you high, but in dangerously high doses transports you to what seems to be an alternate universe.

The book is, alas, somewhat flawed. The main character, though an Immortal and the only one in the world who can fly, is petulant, childish, and a hopeless drug addict and as such is deeply unlikable. This is forgivable as it seems to fit in with the world to some degree: his aging frozen in his teenage years, the main character never matures despite his centuries of life. More disappointing is the way the world nevertheless suffers from a pet peeve of mine when it comes to fantasy: the created world seems rather small and sparsely populated. I suppose this comes from fantasy authors aping the medieval world of Western Europe. But there was more to human civilization than Western Europe, so having an apocalyptic story on that scale just seems wrong. The whole “world” feels like it is about the size of Iowa and (given the medieval technology) considerably less populous, and it detracts from what otherwise would be a suitably epic story. Worst of all the plot towards the end doesn’t quite hang together and the conclusion seems a little too easy, a little too pat. But all this is more than made up for by the inventiveness of the story. Hopefully things will improve next time around: Swainston has written a sequel and has more on the way. Not to worry, though, but the book stands fine on its own and is definitely recommended.

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