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Women in sf reading challenge #6: The Year of Our War, Steph Swainston

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This post is a bit late because I had to reschedule my reading. I decided several weeks ago to make July a month of reading only women writers. But then I was sent three novels by men for review, with a deadline of the end of July. So I moved them to the top of the reading pile so I could finish them in June and not break my promise for July. Anyway, I managed to finish them in time, and so the first book of July was…

When I picked The Year of Our War for my reading challenge at the beginning of this year, I’d heard it argued that the book could be read as sf even though it was marketed as fantasy. I’d also heard it described as “New Weird”, although quite what that means no one seems really sure. But never mind: I wanted to read it, so I bent the rules a little. And, now that I have read it, I have to be honest and say that to me The Year of Our War seems very much a fantasy novel.

Jant Shira is half-Rhydanne and half-Awian. The Rhydanne live high in the mountainous region of Fourlands, are very much used to the cold, and are extremely quick. Awians are very much like normal humans except they possess small wings on their back. Because Jant has the Rhydanne speed and build, and the Awian wings, he can fly. He is the only person who can do this.

He is also immortal.

Two thousand years before, god left Fourlands. He put San, the Emperor, in charge and made him immortal. And in the years since then San has gifted fifty exceptional people with immortality. They form the Circle, and all have superhero-like names – Jant, for example, is Comet. Another member of the Circle is Lightning, a superlative archer, and one of the first people to be made immortal.

Around the same time god left, the Insects invaded Fourlands. These are pony-size ant-like creatures, and they have overwhelmed the northern quarter of the continent. But, after centuries of stalemate, more and more of them are now appearing and encroaching on human-inhabited lands.

The Year of Our War is, I believe, the first book in a series. Certainly, the novel does not resolve the bigger questions its plot asks. A possible source for the Insects is mooted, but not confirmed – and no explanation of that source is offered. Why god left is certainly never revealed. In fact, much of the story of The Year of Our War revolves around a fight for supremacy between a pair of immortals: Mist, the Sailor, and his wife.

There’s much to like in The Year of Our War. The story is narrated by Jant, who is a junkie, and he gives an interesting perspective on the plot. In fact, the entire cast are extremely well-handled. The prose is polished and very readable, although there’s a tendency in the first half of the book to describe everything everyone is wearing, often using unfamiliar and archaic terms. There’s a feeling of depth to the world of the story, as if the author has spent a great many years building it.

But.

Swainston names M John Harrison as an inspiration, and there’s certainly a little of Viriconium in Fourlands. There’s also that same refusal to be ruled by the “clomping foot of nerdism”. Which unfortunately manifests as gaps in rigour. Towards the end of the novel, for example, a famous sword appears and is described as a “katana”. But there’s a lot of cultural baggage that goes with such a weapon, and none of that is present in The Year of Our War. There’s a sense that Fourlands is built from magpie-like borrowings from the real world, but without the history and culture which underpins those borrowings.

The Year of Our War is a not a novel which makes immersion easy – there are too many details which throw the reader out of the world. Sometimes the characters respond in ways which rely on knowledge of the real world, not on knowledge of the world of Fourlands – in other words, they don’t always react like characters in a fantasy novel.The names of people and places seem… odd, as if there are no languages behind them, they’re just random conglomerations of letters. Also not helping is the story’s refusal to provide neat answers – or indeed, provide neat puzzles requiring answers. The concept of god leaving Fourlands, for example, and putting an immortal in charge is extremely cool – there’s an entire novel series just in that – but here it’s merely background. The presentation of the immortals as a sort of superhero team also feels slightly out-of-place in a fantasy world.

As I read The Year of Our War, I concluded I’d be unlikely to ever try its sequels. But as I drew nearer to the end I started to change my mind. And not simply because I wanted to find out what happens. The lack of rigour which had annoyed me no longer seemed to matter. Thing is, I’m not a big fan of fantasy. I’ve read my fair share, but I’ve found little to admire in much of that I’ve read. When reading KJ Parker’s Colours in the Steel last year (see here), I had a similar response to that I was having with Swainston’s novel. That book was a great shambolic monster of a story, which seemed to spend more time on world-building than it did plot. But the engine of its story was driven by such an innovative power-source (and I’m mixing metaphors here, but never mind) that I found myself liking the book more and more as I drew closer to the end. The Year of Our War is less inventive plot-wise than Colours in the Steel, but it does present an interesting – and perhaps even opposed – approach to its world-building. And that, I think, is enough to warrant further exploration.

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4 thoughts on “Women in sf reading challenge #6: The Year of Our War, Steph Swainston

  1. Pingback: A writer’s life is not for me « It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

  2. Pingback: Women in sf reading challenge #7: Zoo City, Lauren Beukes « It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

  3. Pingback: reading & watchings 6: the women-only month « It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

  4. Pingback: Black Gate » Blog Archive » Some Reflections on The Castle Omnibus

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