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The Year of Our War

Steph Swainston

Victor Gollancz / Orion Publishing

UK Hardcover First

ISBN 0-575-07005-6

Publication Date: 04-01-2004

290 Pages; £9.99

Date Reviewed: 12-23-03

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2003



Fantasy, Science Fiction, Horror

The enemy in hordes is swarming across a nightmare landscape. Seething chaos surrounds us. It's a vision of our world, of any world, of a world the writer can build word for word. With great freedom comes great responsibility. Creating a world recognizable to us but entirely different from ours is a responsibility that few are capable of living up to. Doing so in a first novel is ever rarer. How rare then, is 'The Year of Our War', Steph Swainston's first novel that swarms out of the pages and into the reader's mind like a virus, an invasion of our reality. It always seems that we of the world have seen it all, done it all, brought back the posters and extended version DVDs from our excursions. That makes it even more pleasurable to experience Swainston's dense, unfamiliar world, word for word. 'The Year of Our War' is like nothing else out there, deftly combining the familiar with the strange at a density that often beggars the imagination. Swainston brings instinct and artistry to bear on a creation that is both chillingly familiar and yet almost impenetrably unreal. The effect is not unlike getting a straight shot of whiskey when you expected a glass of ginger ale.

Jant Comet is a winged Rhydanne, made immortal for his speed. He is one of fifty or so immortals who help protect the Awains, the Rhydanne and humans from the omnipresent threat of the Insects. He's also an addict, and at levels that approach overdose, "cat", his drug of choice, sends him to a world he calls The Shift. To Comet it seems a concrete alternate reality with implication for his life and duty, but those around him dismiss it as a drug-induced illusion. In the perpetual war against Insects, there's little time for illusions and little patience with addicts. If Comet wears out his welcome amidst the Immortals, there are plenty ready to challenge him. Factions are turning against one another, and the confederation of the races in Comet's world is disintegrating in the face of Insect Threat. They are so seemingly endless that they have no origin, only the overwhelming swarms that change the landscape.

'The Year of Our War' is a very cleverly constructed novel, offering alternating segments of thrilling immediacy and dense, creative invention. Swainston uses the tension between these two opposites to capture the reader in a world like no other we've seen. She eschews exposition almost entirely, plunging the reader into a grittily rendered reality. Culture shock is her friend. But by hewing to the perspectives of her characters, she creates a more richly imagined vision than by simply stepping back to describe things. When she does step back to describe -- that is, when Comet soars overhead -- we see things from an emotionally charged point-of-view.

Swainston's reality is bolstered by the urban nature of her creation. Hers is a world of slums, drugs and juvenile crime. The city streets are dense, dangerous and familiar, even when Insects are not streaming through them, shredding flesh and building walls of paper. Jant Comet is a child of these streets, well versed in shooting-up cat. Swainston serves up these scenes with a frequency that's rather refreshing. His street years serve him well in the internecine struggles between the Awians, the Immortals, the humans and the Insects. As old bonds break down under the stress of relentless attacks, treachery is a skill that helps Comet compensate for his weaknesses.

The density of Swainston's creation is breathtaking. Her novel is experientially-based, and her perspective character's only advantage so far as the reader is concerned is his ability to travel swiftly from place to place. But this is a huge advantage. For one thing, it keeps the novel moving at a brisk pace. There's no trudging across the tundra, mile after mile. Instead, there's a frenetic flight from highpoint to highpoint, and in-between visits to the mysterious and even more bizarre world of the Shift. Swainston's world is so complex and carefully created that the reader soon becomes complacent. It seems that some things in her world -- just as in our world -- will never be explained. As you assimilate and enjoy the scenery, the backdrop creates a complex undercurrent to the action.

But Swainston's also a knockout writer for scenes of triumphant action. Having created a world that's almost too complex to comprehend, she's able to unravel scenes of spectacular conflict. From the jaw-dropping opening chapter to the tense and bloody finish, Swainston puts the reader in the picture with a clarity that challenges cinema. Yes, she's indebted to her cleverly-created main character. There's a lot you can do when your anti-heroic hero can fly. But she's also got the prose chops to bring off panoramas of vast conflict. Battles are intense but not laborious. Dante and William Burroughs were never able to collaborate, but Swainston's done a treat for those who wish they might have. It's nothing less than astonishing that her created world has its own Otherworld, that of the Shift. Parallel upon parallel, Swainston steps away from and back towards our reality and hers with enjoyable ease.

'The Year of Our War' is so strange, it easily resonates for readers stuck in an all-too-familiar reality. Swainston's characters carry and compel, coming to life in an alien landscape. This is not a quest novel, but a novel of conflict between allies and enemies, and allies who become enemies. In any great battle -- in all battles, from the most microscopic struggle within one's self to the imminent apocalypse of the mindless swarms -- decisions are made at a personal level for personal reasons. They're made under the skin. The world without matters not a whit. What we are is all we should concern ourselves with. From tragedy to triumph, 'The Year of Our War' chronicles and conquers worlds never before seen with emotions we experience everyday. It's not easy; great novels never are. 'The Year of Our War' marshals chaos into compelling, gripping complexity. Victory is not easy and it's not final. But it's well worth fighting for and it's well within sight.