Daniel Roy's Reviews > The Year of Our War

The Year of Our War by Steph Swainston
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's review
May 03, 2011

it was ok
bookshelves: fantasy

Boy, does Steph Swainston's first book come with a lot of hype. The quotes on the cover and back of the US edition include such cutting-edge authors as Richard Morgan and China Miéville himself. After reading these glowing quotes and finishing this book, I have a theory about cover quotes: writers give them only to authors that don't threaten their supremacy.

I read the book based on a short but positive recommendation from Emerald City, having otherwise been totally oblivious to any kind of literary hype (China will do that to you!) That being said, I did expect some tasty weirdness and interesting world-building, which is the staple of so-called Weird Fiction. In both these regards, however, The Year of Our War is weak.

The setting is not the most intriguing, but it does have promise: Jant, the protagonist, is a cross-breed of two races, which gives him the unique ability to fly. This has made him attractive to the Emperor, who grants immortality to 50 individuals who are the best at their given task. Since Jant is the only one who can fly, he is the Emperor's Messenger. Other members of this Circle of immortals include Lightning, the Fourlands' best archer for 1,500 years, and Mist, the Emperor's sailor.

A twist to this setting is the Insects, man-sized creatures slowly overtaking the Fourlands and converting them to Paperlands, named such for the hard, paper-like substance the Insects use for construction. The Insects are a nice twist on the traditional Fantasy enemy: they're mindless, incomprehensible, and totally ruthless. In a Fantasy setting, they provide a suitably unsettling Starship Troopers quality to the conflict, which you usually don't find with your run-of-the-mill gloating bad guy who wants to overtake the Heroes for his own Evil reasons.

Ah, but there's more: see, Jant is also a drug addict, whose heroine-like substance addiction sometimes takes him to an alternate reality he calls the Shift, which is also infested by Insects. The Shift is actually richer in details and more fantastic, filled with man-turtles, women made of worms, and other weird characters.

Whew. Sounds overpacked with crazy details, doesn't it? Well, not really. Truth be told, all of the concepts in The Year of Our War sound awesome on paper, but they're only half-realized. Most of the novel is spent with very soap opera-esque characters fighting amongst themselves; you get women rebelling against their abusive husbands, secret love children, drug fiend self-loathing, and a lot of other things that are not that interesting, really. The secondary characters are sketched at best, and lack a certain quality to really make them stand out. For instance, we are told, rather than shown, that the King is a just and mighty King, and that the Emperor is wise and fearsome. When it came to actually showing them in action, they didn't truly stand out. The most annoying is definitely Mist Shearwater, who spouts modern-day truisms in two words, such as "Curiosity. Cat." or "Bitten. Shy." It's annoying the first time, and overwhelmingly irritating after sixty.

This lack of depth is unfortunately also the case for events in the story; you just feel it would have been more interesting if written by a better author. The biggest victim here is the Shift, which sounds on paper like it is meant to be a violent and visceral version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. You get turtle-men, leopards with square spots, horse-men wearing invisible clothes, and "problemmings" who jump from cliffs and fly in the air. Unfortunately, the lack of scope of these ideas means they're just there to decorate the plot and don't bring much atmosphere.

Overall, if you get past the soap opera and the sometimes awkwardly modern language, there are some cool ideas in The Year of Our War. It's not a bad book; it just doesn't stand out all that much. And when it's placed next to contemporaries such as Perdido Street Station, it only suffers from the comparison. Still, it's Steph Swainston's first novel, so there's hope for a bright future.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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Elliot Smith Encapsulates my feelings about the novel perfectly.

caracal-eyes aww...this review makes me sad. Already my hopes are lowered...but, hey, I guess that's not a bad thing--so long as the book is better than my now somewhat-pessimistic expectations, I won't be disappointed in it. For the parts that do sound good so far, and in the hope that any following books will be better, I think I'll give it a try.

Daniel Roy Glad I can contribute to your enjoyment of the book by setting the bar lower and allowing it to expect your expectations. :)

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