I’m always drawn to material that is described as “fresh,” “original” or “inventive.” So when I was introduced to Steph Swainston and her highly praised fantasy series, I was eager to delve into this fascinating new world starting with Ms. Swainston’s debut The Year of Our War. Unluckily for me, it wasn’t quite what I expected.
Set in The Fourlands, The Year of Our War focuses on three races (humans, winged yet flightless Awians, and the mysterious Rhydanne) who have been at war for almost 2000 years with the giant, carnivorous, ant-like Insects. Aiding the Zascai (mortals) in their constant battle against the Insects are Emperor San and his chosen Circle of fifty Immortals (Eszai), each of whom are masters in a certain area (The Swordsman, The Sailor, The Blacksmith, etc.). While the majority of the book centers on battles against the Insects, the plot also includes court intrigues, marital disputes, and doomed passions.
Narrating this entire story from a first-person point of view (and the occasional newspaper article or letter) is Comet Jant Shira, The Messenger, a half-Awian/half-Rhydanne Immortal unique in his ability to fly. For a central character, Jant is not the most likeable fellow. First of all, he is not very well defined, with only the occasional flashback or glimpse into his background, which is a shame, because there does seem to be a lot of interesting opportunities to explore here. Secondly, Comet has a weak personality, dominated by his addiction to the drug scolopendium (cat). While this adds a unique dimension to Mr. Jant, it’s not enough to overshadow the shaky dialogue or the schizophrenic manner in which the story is told. Worst of all, though he’s the main character, Jant rarely moves the tale forward on his own and seems to always be embroiled in the machinations of secondary players (Archer Lightning Micawater, Dunlin Rachiswater, Sailor Shearwater Mist, Ata Dei, Swallow Awndyn, etc.) who are even more one-dimensional than Comet.
As a whole, The Year of Our War just wasn’t my kind of fantasy. Part of it was the world itself. It was a cluttered amalgam of ideas that excelled in some areas such as the land/sea battles versus the Insects and particularly the Shift (the highlight of the book), a highly imaginative alternate world where Jant goes to when he takes enough cat, though unfortunately is visited only rarely throughout the novel. But other themes either fall flat (the dramatic scenes involving mortals and immortals) or are just underdeveloped (the Circle, the Rhydanne, the Insects, etc.). Personally, I think the main problem I had with the book was the writing itself. While I felt that the concept behind The Year of Our War was solid enough, the execution with which it was brought to life was just too erratic, with Ms. Swainston’s strengths lying in her descriptive prose of battles, scenery, etc., and her weakness sorely evident in the characterization, dialogue, plotting, and to some extent, the pacing.
In the end, The Year of Our War is a book that I’m not sure I can recommend, and in all honesty, I probably won’t be reading its follow-up No Present Like Time anytime soon, though I will keep an eye on Steph Swainston just to see how she progresses as a writer.
Fourlands — (2004-2016) Publisher: Jant is the Messenger, one of The Circle, a cadre of 50 immortals who serve the Emperor, and the only who can fly. The Emperor seeks to protect mankind from the hordes of giant insects who have plagued the land for centuries. But he must also contend with the rivalries of his chosen immortals.