Monday, October 21, 2013

Steph Swainston, The Year of Our War (2004)

Well, I'd read and enjoyed all the OTHER writers cited on the New Weird wikipedia page, as well as Felix Gilman, who must surely count.  Truthfully, I don't put much stake in this alleged sub-genre or the vague, bullshit-y definitions that the page gives for it, but it appears that I tend to like the books placed there, so what the hey.

The Year of Our War takes place in a world where people (humans, along with several kinds of people with wings) are in a constant, indeterminate war with giant insects that come from somewhere.  They wear baroque armor and fight with medieval weapons, but they also wear jeans and tee-shirts and such, which I guess is a New-Weird thing?  I don't know if it means much, but it adds a mildly off-kilter note to the proceedings.  There's a castle, supposedly in the middle of the world, where an emperor lives, and he's immortal, and he has a circle of officers who are also immortal (though the kind of immortal where you can still be killed).  They're trying to keep the bugs off, and waiting for the return of god (never capitalized, for whatever reason), who apparently just left some thousands of years ago, and now there are bugs.  Man oh man.  Actually, it's a kind of intriguing thing, though it's never dealt with in any detail.

The narrator, Jant, is one of these immortals.  He's also the only person who can fly, due to being--I think, it's kind of vague--some sort of half-breed.  He's also addicted to this drug that, when overdosed on, transports you to this zany, Oz-like alternate world called Shift, populated by various strange beings and animals with puns for names (jeopard, problemming, impossum).  The book consists mostly of politicking between him and other immortals and people jockeying for a slot in the immortal line-up.  There's also some flashbacks to Jant's youth as a drug dealer and sundry bug-fighting.  It's all extremely profane and violent and gory, with a few bits that put Miéville's more gruesome moments to shame.  For better or worse.

I have to say, I was really ambivalent about this book pretty much the whole way through.  Actually, for the first third or so I was pretty much totally unengaged, and wasn't sure whether I actually wanted to go through with the thing.  After that, I got more into it, but I kept wondering why I was into it; what exactly was keeping me going.  The best parts are the Shift sections, wherein Swainston really lets loose.  There are a few really delightfully/horrifyingly grotesque bits there that stick with you rather intensely.  But most of it takes place in regular-world, and although I sort of got into the characters' conflicts, I still don't feel that they were very well-defined or, well…interesting, honestly.  This whole idea of people becoming or ceasing to be immortal seems pretty half-baked to me, and it didn't seem like nearly enough attention was given to the likely psychological impact of this state both on the immortals themselves and the non-immortals around them.  How do you feel when your kids get older than you and die, as one of only many for-instances?  Not a question that is addressed!  Also--it has to be said--if this very same book were by a male author, you would think, whoa.  This dude has serious issues with women.  As it is, you're not sure what to think, but you remain unsatisfied with gender representation in the novel: women are basically all one or more of the following: scheming, bitchy, mercurial, shallow, jealous, inscrutable.  Not that the guys are any great shakes either, but they don't seem to be defined by stereotypically-gendered traits in the way that the women are.  And never mind the one extremely squicky and explicit rape or at least rape-ish scene, which to be fair isn't meant to be a positive thing, exactly, but still feels gratuitous.  Granted, everything's from Jant's perspective, and it might not be a great idea to take all of his perceptions at face value, but still…bah, sez I.

Beyond that, though, it just doesn't feel like a coherent novel so much as it does a hunk of material about this world just sort of plunked out there.  There's some conflict, but nothing ever seems to develop in any meaningful way, and then it just sort of stops.  Even if this isn't meant to be a stand-alone book (and I think it is, at least to some extent), you really need more structure than this.  The question looms large throughout the novel: where is this all going?  What's the point of all this?  If there is one, it remains elusive, as it transpires.

I don't know, though.  I really don't.  I did sorta kinda enjoy this, in spite of everything, but man: there are three sequels, and Swainston's apparently working on a fourth.  She could easily develop as a writer in these later books and/or address the problems that I had with this one.  But oddsbodkins, man…I am just really seriously unenthused about pressing onward here.  "In fifty years' time, people will be reading this book and talking about it the way we talk about Gormenghast," sez one of the laudatory quotes, but that sounds to me like a thing that an insane person would say.  Even if Swainston was trying to do something similar to Peake--and she's not, even remotely--the idea that the two are in the same class is just utter nonsense.  Maybe some time will pass and my opinions will mellow and I will decide to give the next one a shot, but not right now, I'll tell you that much.  This is not like Miéville's Bas-Lag, where you're just desperate to learn more about the world and its denizens, and you have no choice but to read the shit out of anything set there.  There's no question that Swainston has talent, but I'm afraid that The Year of Our War has to rank at the bottom of the New Weird books I've read.  Or would if "New Weird" were actually a real thing.


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