THE YEAR OF OUR WAR, by Steph Swainston
Gollancz, 2004, 9.99, 304pp
ISBN 0-575-07005-6

Steph Swainston has some friends in high places if the press quotes on this, her first novel, are anything to go by. Gollancz have wheeled out the big new guns of British fantasy and sf to deliver some blistering praise for The Year Of Our War, which sets up some hefty expectations.

This is a fantasy novel - you can call it New Weird if you like but for my money it's fantasy. If a book is set in a world (or worlds, rather) other than our own with a roughly Medieval level of technology, populated with a variety of different intelligent races, ruled by a meritocracy of immortals all chosen by an Emperor left in charge when God went away 2,000 years ago, now under attack from giant insects and defended by cavalry, archers and sword-wielding infantry, then I call that fantasy. Call me an old stick-in-the-mud but I do. There are a blizzard of plot and story elements in The Year Of Our War that are much less traditionally associated with fantasy. These possibly do merit some sort of distinguishing nomenclature to ensure that The Year Of Our War isn't drowned in the ever-rising tide of ongoing humdrum sword and sorcery quest epics, but, in the best possible sense, this is fantasy.

This is the story of Comet, winged Mercury-like messenger of the Circle of the immortals. The Circle are chosen by the Emperor (himself immortal and appointed by God) as the very greatest exponents of their particular skill, whether it be communication, archery, sailing or blacksmithery. They are to preserve and teach their arts for the benefit of the mortals until such time as God returns and they are no longer needed, when all ascend unto heaven or whatever is scheduled to happen.

Membership of the Circle is not necessarily a permanent appointment since if a mortal can prove themselves to be the equal or better of any immortal in their chosen specialised subject then they can take their place within the Circle and the previous holder will become mortal once again. It's a particularly harsh form of ongoing assessment that Comet is looking increasingly vulnerable to because of his addiction to the drug cat, this world's analogue of heroin. Comet's addiction is also not helped by the fact that shooting up with cat sends him (or his consciousness) to the Shift, which is either, a) another dimension, or b) a totally tripped out junkie's hallucination (albeit a remarkably consistent, ongoing one).

This is a particularly bad time for Comet to be falling apart because, following the death of the heroic warrior king Rachiswater, the mindless Insects that have always menaced the kingdom seem to be growing in numbers and getting ideas decidedly above their station, thus threatening the end of the world before God can get back to it and tie up all the loose ends...

The Year Of Our War continues that sterling tradition of sf (less so of fantasy) of being completely opaque for its first few pages. It is perhaps only slightly less so for the first few chapters. You will have a reasonable grasp on the physical action, but I can pretty much guarantee that whatever image you have in your head is wrong. Whatever you think is happening or is about to happen, you are almost certainly wrong. Your being wrong will continue throughout, so you may as well just be a man about it and accept it as part of this trickster-trickster novel. Some things will become clear by the end, so much so that you'll immediately want to re-read The Year Of Our War (which is no bad thing for any novel) if for no other reason than to reimagine those first few chapters that you were so hopelessly, naively wrong about, as well as to pick up on the subtle things you may have missed later on.

Comet himself is not a terribly nice chap, and is carried by most of the other immortals throughout most of the book. As it turns out, though, most of the other immortals aren't very nice either, largely because of the effort and sacrifice it has taken - and still takes - most of them to get and stay where they are, to keep their hard-won immortality. The addition of a wannabe immortal, Swallow, a character who will do almost anything to become immortal illustrates something of what the Circle have to put up with, although because her skill is in music (for which there is, as yet, no member of the Circle) we see none of the conflict. The politics of the immortals and the mortals twist and turn throughout and are mostly very well portrayed; intriguing and invisible, they support the set-pieces of the horrendous battles very comfortably.

For sheer contortions of the imagination I can think of few books to equal The Year Of Our War. Certainly China Mieville's novels are a comparable effort of creation, but this is another relatively major rethink of the tropes of fantasy, taking some of the absolute basics as a starting point before flying off into a bizarre, unexpected realm of unexplained weirdness where the suffocating hand of Tolkein is but a distant memory. Because the strangest thing about this novel is that there are no explanations. What the reader is told must be taken as given: guaranteed to wrong-foot an overconfident reader every single time. There is no "magic" or "sorcery", only an absent God who has set things up just so; no elves or dwarves, only a welter of unique races. No cosmology or physics or history apparently other than what we see, which gives this book a sense of being an exploration, and imbues it with an immediacy, a breakneck roughness, that I can only liken to running, exhilarated, as fast as you can through the streets late at night whilst very drunk.

I was completely unsure whether I liked this book up until about two-thirds of the way through when suddenly, as though a had fog lifted, things began to fit together and I started to enjoy it. It looks like Gollancz (and the big guns) have got it right again.

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