The Year of our War, Steph Swainston

Gollancz, 2004, 290 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 0-575-07610-0

While the old saw “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” is excellent advice for life in general, it’s not much use to a reviewer trying to meet his monthly quota. In this spirit, allow me to present a mostly negative, rather tangential, entire content-free review of Steph Swainston’s The Year of our War.

Swainston fans may not wish to read any further. In fact, most casual surfers reading this right now (this means you) may want to skip to the next review entirely. This is not going to be pretty: I usually don’t review books that make me shrug, but I’m desperate for content this month and I have no better candidate for commentary than this book.

Obviously, I didn’t think much of The Year of our War. Didn’t love it, didn’t hate it. Just didn’t care for it or even spent much time thinking about the book when I wasn’t actually reading it.

I suspect that part of the problem is my built-in lack of interest for run-of-the-mill fantasy. While I’m an obsessive Science-Fiction genre fan (see review of The Algebraist, above) and while I am not, in theory, opposed to imaginative fantasy (see review of The Scar, above), most of the genre tends to run into the same dull background of medieval eras, kingdoms, anti-technology, self-consciously heroic characterizations and so on. Typical fantasy’s little pocket universe was mined empty years ago; isn’t it time to move on?

While some blurbers have been prompt to describe Swainston’s debut novel as “incredibly inventive”, “boldly imagined” and “breaking out of the elvish-straightjacket”, I’m not so sure there’s anything dramatically new in here. Once more, we’re back to the Olde Continent Mappe that fits neatly in one single page of the book. Once more, we’re back to a pre-industrial era with Kings and Queens and a constant war with An Enemy Too Hideous To Befriend. Once more, swords and bows and arrows rule the day. Bold imagination? Well, there are newspapers and a steady stream of swearing.

There’s also a severely imperfect protagonist. Our narrator, Jant/Comet, is capable of flight, but as the novel opens he’s struggling with a drug addiction that may come to jeopardize his standing as the kingdom’s hero and -more importantly- his place on the Circle, a select group of fifty experts made immortal by the reigning Emperor. To add to his burden, the war against The Insects (that’s right: The Insects) isn’t going too well even as the tensions are rising amongst the immortals.

If I was sarcastic (and you know that I am), I’d say something akin to “junkie angels don’t make a novel original.” Not when a lot of the novel is boilerplate transitional fantasy. Well-written and not without its share of striking images, sure, (there’s your cover blurb right there) but hardly enough to reconcile me with the sub-genre. Or even make me care about the entire thing.

After a valiant attempt at being interested in the novel, I felt myself slide back in apathy after a hundred pages, disappointed that this was going to be Yet Another Swords-and-Stuff novel with added touches of soap opera and the odd interesting scene. The rest of the novel simply slid past without much impact.

I realize that this is certainly a minority view. On-line reviews have been uniformly positive, almost to the point of over-hype. I suspect that these critics are all coming to the novel with a far better attitude toward the type of fiction The Year of Our War is supposed to re-invent. Or it may be that after a steady diet of Chuck Palahniuk’s fiction, it’s going to take a lot more than a junkie as a narrator to make me say “wow”. In fact, the announcement that this is only the first book in a series was sufficient to make me go “eergh”, which you may loosely interpret as a lack of interest in reading further volumes.

Fortunately, as “some guy with a website”, my credibility is laughable and my commercial influence is nil. As it happen, don’t perceive this as a declaration of war against the author, the genre or you as a reader: Long life to Steph Swainston, may she enjoy a sustained run of acclaimed and best-selling novels. As far as I’m concerned, though, I’m going to continue avoiding traditional fantasy. If nothing else, it’ll prevent further interest-free reviews like this one in the future.

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