No Present Like Time – Steph Swainston

Note: This one was written quite a long time ago – certainly more than a year – but I never got around to publishing it anywhere. Maybe I would write it differently now, or maybe not. Anyway, I thought that it might be of interest to some, while I’m trying to find the time to finish and review Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds.

I’ve already reviewed one book by Steph Swainston – the first part of her Castle series, consisting of four published titles (and another one to come): The Year of Our War, No Present Like Time, The Modern World and Above the Snowline. Here is a link to the text, which is in Bulgarian. If you are already familiar with the setting of the series, you can skip the following two paragraphs. If not, I will try to outline briefly the world of the Fourlands, because worldbuilding is certainly one of Swainston’s greatest fortes. The story takes place on a small continent (or a big island, depending on the point of view, I guess), partitioned territorially by the four nations living on it. In this case we can even speak about distinct human species, as the Awians in the north are winged (although flightless) people with hollow bones and the Rhydanne inhabiting the Darkling mountains are also strinkingly different with their thinner, longer limbs and superhuman speed and agility, not to mention their ferocity and seemingly pathological individualism. The Plainslanders and Morenzians in the south are pretty much your normal humans, but they have industrialization, drugs and football, so they aren’t really the stereotypical fantasy foil either. What keeps these disparate political entities glued together is the external threat of the Insects, coming from the northernmost parts of the Fourlands. The Insects have appeared from god (the lack of capital letter is actually the convention in this fantasy world) knows where, effectively cutting a big part of the north away for themselves. Most of the time they are kept behind a giant wall built for this specific purpose, but their incursions beyond it are a constant threat to civilization. The Insects are big and, in most of the cases, lethal war machines, protected by thick armored shells and equipped with limbs that make for quick and perfect incisions. They also churn out large amounts of paper-like substance over the lands they inhabit, turning them into curious, barren papier-mache-like terrains. The political entity that binds the Fourlands into an Empire and erects a coordinated defense against the monstrous invaders is the Castle and its resident Emperor, right in the heart of the continent. The Emperor is the immortal deputy of the god which left. He has lived for at least a millennium and a half and commands a Circle of other immortal beings, each one of whom are the best in what they do. Thus, there are the titles of Swordsman, Archer, Sailor, Doctor, Architect, Messenger, Strongman, etc., and any mortal can challenge the current bearer of the title, victory being the ticket to immortality granted by Emperor San.

The protagonist of the Castle books is exactly one of these immortals. Meet Comet Jant Shira. Half-Awian, half-Rhydanne, the only person able to fly in the whole Empire. Two-hundred-year-old, with the looks of a 23-year-old youth. A vain but nice, humorous guy, with a deep flaw in his character, which is also the underlying reason for his addiction. Jant is addicted to a peculiar drug called scolopendium – or cat, as it is more popular. Cat is a substance which is normally lethal when taken in extreme amounts. A curious side effect is that all who die of cat overdose have their beings projected in another world called the Shift. The Shift is probably one of the most original fantasy worlds I have read of. It is a meta-world, a virtual plane or sorts, where beings from different corners of the multiverse gather and forge their own crazy conceptions of reality. The physical laws of the Shift are peculiar, to say the least. One is left with the impression that it has been initially designed by a mad dyslexic demiurge, as the presence of whorses and fibre-tooth tigers suggests. Jant, being part of the Circle of immortals, is the only man from the Fourlands who can exit and reenter the Shift, until the next overdose, that is. This existence of two separate worlds brings in an interesting dynamics to the narrative, one whose focal point is inevitably the winged Messenger, always flitting from one geographical location to another, between realities, between sobriety and drug-induced states of mind, and between the memories of his eventful life of more than two hundred years.

As I have written in the ShadowDance review, The Year of Our War is a magnificent novel. It has so many strong points that even enumerating them requires quite a lot of text. Not to mention its wild inventiveness and unabashed experimentalism when it comes to testing the envelope of genre conventions. Sadly, No Present Like Time is not exactly on par with its predecessor. Yes, the book is very engaging and full of wonderful conceits. It too benefits from Swainston’s great characterization skills and her literary flair and erudition. It just lacks a certain focus and thrust that made The Year of Our War such a fast-paced and captivating read. Part of the blame, I guess, should be attributed to Swainston’s plot choices. No Present Like Time deals mostly with a naval expedition to the newly-found island of Tris situated far from the Fourlands’ shore. Led by the immortals Mist Ata, Lightning, Comet and the newly-ascended Swordsman Serein Wrenn, the mission’s goal is to convince the inhabitants of Tris to join the Empire and to become its fifth land. The differences between the two societies, however, turn out to be insurmountable and the prospect of infinite time that comes with immortality fails to bring the Trisians to the fold of the Empire. Meanwhile, a rebellion blooms in the heart of the Fourlands. These two story lines are eventually tied together, while for most of the time our first-person narrator is tormented by seasickness, relapse into drug use and searing jealousy for his beautiful and estranged immortal wife Tern.

I already mentioned above that the chief flaw of the novel is its lack of focus. The sea expedition essentially disrupts the fine pattern of Comet’s being everywhere that was so brilliantly used in the previous installment. Instead, Jant is mostly lamenting his misfortune and reminiscing about the past. Again, we have some brilliant scenes recovered from his immortal memory, but at least half of these recollections failed to keep my interest the way those from the first book did. Moreover, the conflict at the heart of the present novel lacks the urgency and potential for elaboration of the massive Insect invasion that we saw in The Year of Our War. Sure, there are quite a lot of interesting observations about culture clashes and about the nature of immortality. In fact, the second novel is mostly concerned with the concept of always having to be on the top, to maintain the number one position in order to enjoy unlimited life. Or fame, riches, acclaim, etc. A lot of what Swainston writes is a well-masked metaphor for everyday reality in our own world. A metaphor, mind you, and a very intricate one at that, not a didactically-dull allegory. The fact that she so deftly breaks and reconstructs genre tropes in the process speaks tons of Swainston’s talent as a writer. No Present Like Time just fails in achieving the level of density and intensity that goes along so well with this fresh approach to fantasy literature. The quality is uneven on practically all levels of the narrative structure. The only character that feels really deep this time is Jant, while in The Year of Our War there were such incredible performances by Lightning, Swallow and King Rachiswater, for instance. The Shift too is glaringly neglected. It appears three times in total, quite briefly at that. And while some pretty breathtaking things happen during Jant’s stay there, its utilization feels somewhat unfulfilling. Instead we have a painfully prolonged description of a battle between humans in the end of the book. Swainston is obviously not good at that. Her minimalist and shockingly brief and bloody descriptions of Insect encounters work perfectly, but, alas, these too are missing from this volume. There are two duels in the book that are given spectacular quality through Jant’s bird’s-eye point of view, and a sex scene that works fantastically in quite a lot of ways, but, at least for me, those fail to compensate for all the other drawbacks mentioned.

Despite all the complaints, No Present Like Time is a quality novel set in one of the most original worlds of fantasy, seen through the eyes of a wonderfully complicated protagonist and written by a master writer with a fresh voice and perspective. It’s just that it doesn’t fare too well in comparison with the first part of the series. Let us hope that the tendency is reversed in the following books.

7/10

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