Kicking the Shift with Steph Swainston in The Year of Our War

Another combo I’m repackaging here in the form of an interview Steph Swainston and a review of her debut novel The Year of Our War.

steph swainston

I conducted this interview with Steph in 2005 and I saw awhile back ago she quit writing (at least as a profession) for reasons that seem quite reasonable (time and isolated grind) and also, if I’m reading correctly due some experience with fandom or what was at the time the initial wave of fan journalists/blogs/reviewers that were popping up around that time.

I can’t really comment specifically on that because I don’t know the specifics of her interactions but I can say we have seen what fandom has become online in the years since and we can extrapolate we weren’t on a good path. On a personal level as someone who had started making an online name for themselves in this small vertical I can say that in my brief interaction with Steph she was incredibly lovely and that wasn’t the exclusive behavior of the several dozen writers/authors I interacted with who, to be fair, were going through an adjustment of how to interact with people and fandom online and vice versa. It was very much new ground.

She was SO excited and even shared with me her own hand drawn art related to her Castle work that she allowed us to publish and her enthusiasm was impossible to not see, and while not a writer myself I think many of us can still recognize or at least understand the idea of the joy of seeing the stories you have thought of since you were a kid become official and published – not to mention wrapped in a SWEET cover that The Year of Our War had even before blurbed by China Mieville.

Anyway, check my interview below followed by my thoughts on her debut novel.

This time we bring to you an author who has just released her second heavily anticipated novel, No Present Like Time, on the heels of her first well-received and successful debut offering The Year of Our War, which has drawn praise like “Thoughtful, exuberant, incredibly inventive: a blistering debut, and honest-to-god unputdownable” from China Mieville. The Year of Our War also won the 2005 Crawford Award, awarded by the IAFA (The international association for the Fantastic in the Arts) recognizing the new writer in fantasy who demonstrates most promise, and is a nominee for the John W. Campbell award for Best New SF or Fantasy writer which will be awarded at Worldcon. Our guest this week is Steph Swainston, who was kind enough to agree to join us, her inclusion a necessity after I myself read her aforementioned impressive debut The Year of Our War. I’d like to thank Steph once again for sharing her time with us.

Jay — Steph, can you please tell the fans what can they expect from The Year of Our War?

Steph — The Insects appeared after god left the world for a short break, leaving the Emperor as caretaker. That’s what the inhabitants of the Fourlands believe, anyway. They are under constant attack by animals they can’t hope to communicate with. The war influences most aspects of the Empire.

There are deep and well-rounded characters in a world where immortality can be gained on merit and lost in a fair competition. There are battles against Insects and a pragmatic take on heroism. Survival is more important than honour, because you can’t strike noble poses against Insects.

You can expect great battles, complicated and difficult relationships, and scenes from the life of the flamboyant and self-absorbed narrator, Jant.

I find it funny to see the critics struggle with something that any attentive casual reader grasps straight away. The books are written from Jant’s point of view. The views he expresses are his, wholly within the Fourlands’ system of belief. They are not necessarily my views.

Jay — The second installment No Present like Time was just released. What can you tell us about this effort?

Steph — No Present like Time happens five years after The Year of Our War. There is a suite of events that often happens after major wars. I put a list of twenty on the ‘Theory’ thread on my www.ttapress.com message board. Some of these happen in the Fourlands, for example the Castle launches a voyage of exploration and an island, Tris, is discovered. Tris is the first in a volcanic archipelago arc and it looks like a Mediterranean island.

There are also some great sword fights.

Moreover, No Present like Time explores the relationship between Jant and Tern, which, to simplify, has matured from hectic passion to a cooler selfishness by 2020 when the story takes place. They still love each other, but Tern has affairs. Jant doesn’t want her to be subservient to another man who doesn’t respect her. That is partly a gangster’s attitude to women that he’s picked up, but there’s more to it than that. There’s a class difference between them that adds to Jant’s insecurities.

Jant is still very aware of his friends’ attitude towards his drug abuse. Whether or not they are condemning him, he thinks that they are. Jant’s friends may well empathies with him about his addiction, but they are in the middle of a war that the Eszai are supposed to be commanding, and a Messenger isn’t much use slumped in the corner unconscious. Jant has been on and off drugs in roughly five year cycles for ninety years, and by the time of the events of The Year of Our War, his friends have tried everything from being very sweetly cajoling to locking him in his bedroom. Jant tries their patience, which is all the more strained for knowing that he uses his self-harm to fish for their pity.

Jay — In The Year of Our War I thought you successfully set up a platform for numerous sequel possibilities, in terms of how many directions you could go in. This has to do with some the variety of details you touched on regarding the Four Lands, touching on castes, differentiating between social customs and political practices between regions and then again the variety in the regions themselves. Do you plan on bringing into focus more of these elements individually in further novels now that The Year of Our War effectively introduced them to the reader?

Steph — Yes, definitely. There’s a lot to say. You’ve seen the pure meritocracy of the Castle. You’ve glimpsed the Awian monarchy, which has a two-level aristocratic system of landed governors and tenant farmers. Hacilith city is teetering on the edge of an industrial revolution. Only the Rhydanne have castes depending on whether or not the child is born out of wedlock. They congregate in winter and disperse in summer; the hunters are nomadic, the herders transhumant. In a weird, non-human way the Rhydanne fail to organize any kind of society.

But the large and varied background of the Fourlands will always be an influence on the actions of the people and a backdrop to the story. I don’t use info dumps simply because I don’t like reading them in fantasy novels.

Jay  — Can we expect that the rest of your work will focus on a different single POV in your future work in the Fourlands, and will your novels in this sequence be stand-alone in nature?

Steph — Yes, they will all be stand-alone in nature. They won’t all be from Jant’s POV, but the next one will be.

Jay — Lately there has been a bit of a long over due renaissance as of late of writers who are recognizing the influence of the peerless M. John Harrison. What do you think is propelling this “movement” and what do you find compelling about his work?

Steph — I can’t speak for other authors but I suspect it’s just because we read his work when we were younger! Harrison’s writing is so brilliant it will stand the test of time in a way that many other fantasies won’t.

Harrison wrote about the area where I grew up, so his work resonates with me. Some of his writing vividly records the millstone grit and grey clouds filtering the yellow winter sunlight of the Pennines, Yorkshire Dales and the towns in the north of England.

Many characters in Harrison’s work delude themselves in various ways. For example, in Course of Heart, Isobel Avens wants to have cosmetic alteration to grow feathers because she wants to be a bird. But she can never be a bird, she can only alter herself to look more like one, so she becomes desperately unhappy.

Lightning lives with a delusion as well; he maintains an idealized past. He describes the Awian court of the year 619 — which looks classical Roman but acts high Medieval — in such an idealized way that the reader can tell that his memories have been airbrushed to perfection. Lightning is a walking relic of the Fourlands’ middle ages (Awia’s ‘golden age’), and although immortality has affected him, he preserves some of the character that he had as a Zascai. Now his love seems too studied and reasonable to be so passionately held. But Lightning is comfortable with this, and can make his lifestyle work, so I can’t criticize the fact that he chooses to maintain an illusion.

Jay — Jant is so well characterized, with what seems a profound understanding regarding his nuances and sure vision of what he is conceptually, made so personable and real is he based off of someone you know, or a personal experience?

Steph — All my characters began as parts of me, augmented with parts from everything I’ve ever read and everyone I’ve ever known.

Jay — Your Harper/Eos interview indicates more influences and notes what you don’t read (I’ll let readers follow the link). What type of writer do you classify yourself as, and does it matter to you how you are categorized?

Steph — I’ll ignore any categorization! Are we to follow rules or rules to follow us? I’m determined never to insult the readers’ intelligence or waste their time. I think that good prose is paramount, and I will let the reader imagine the Fourlands for him/herself.

I’m showing fragments of Jant’s life, not a chronological epic. William Burroughs said that, ‘a review of a life is not an orderly account from conception to death; rather, it’s fragments from here and there.’ But you will be able to make links. The stories have been worked out before I began to write The Year of Our War, so that if you read four books, you will understand more of why Jant acts like he does in the first book.

I believe in thorough research, for example I read many of the surviving Renaissance fencing manuals for the sword fighting scenes in . The geography of the Fourlands makes sense, for example the continent’s west coast is straight and the jagged Darkling mountains are always increasing in height, like the Andes, because the west coast is a subduction zone for a plate moving eastward — plate tectonics applied to a fantasy world!

Moreover, I’m interested in the processes by which things happen — by which societies and characters change; I want to inject some realism. Even if a fantasy world begins in a medieval state, it will evolve along its own trajectory producing something radically different to a feudal society of our history. Elements of the culture may remain static, but there has to be a reason for it. For example, the Fourlands still has longbows because Lightning the Archer would prove the superiority of bows over any incipient new invention like guns.

I dislike Tolkien’s novels, in which the reader has no idea of what normal people actually do all day or what tools they use (apart from weaponry). It’s like the tales of Knights Errant — you gain a good idea what Lancelot gets up to, what his castle is like and how much meat he consumes, but everyone else is a bit part.

In the Castle world, I won’t use easy answers such as magic, because magic doesn’t exist in our world. I believe that the ‘real’ world of science and natural history is just as exciting and full of wonder as any enchantment. I was once lucky enough to be able to take photographs of ants using a scanning electron microscope. They are powerful little monsters! I think the natural world is full of amazement ripe for use in fantasy.

steph swainston

 

With her debut novel, The Year of Our War, Steph Swainston establishes a canvas with unlimited possibilities for future tales in the setting, while offering a sequence of events within the novel that both fulfills upon completion, and leaves you wondering just in which direction she will take her successive works without being able to think of any choice that would come near to disappoint.

The Four Lands are in a constant state of war as the inhabitants of the three southern lands, Awia, Plainsland, and Morenzia are in a perpetual tug-of-war match with the Insectoid inhabitants of the North, called the Paper Lands. Swainston populates the Four Lands with a human population that offers variety, and are made unique by evolutionary differences between the inhabitants of the largely different ecosystems and environments her setting offers. Each of these groups share common cause against the Insects, however are given vastly different customs, both social and in regards to economic strengths and weaknesses.

The different strengths of certain populations are noted by one of the most interesting concepts regarding Swainston’s world and that is the Circle. The land is indeed governed by the various heads of local governments however all bodies recognize the authority (and mostly positively) of the Circle. The denizens of the Circle are based in what is simply called The Castle, the seat of power in the land, and carries with it an always welcome Mervyn Peake influence, is home of the immortal Emperor San. The Emperor is not the only immortal he also grants immortality to fifty others (his Circle), in which he chooses the most adept at different valuable skills and freezes them in their age. Members of this coterie for example include the greatest Archer, Swordsman, Sailor and so on. There are three ways to join this club dubbed the Escazi, an entry only the Emperor can bestow and also remove — the gift of immortality. One is to be chosen by the San himself, the other is to marry a current member of the Circle, and the other is by challenging a current member (also by San’s approval). The existence of the Circle and its means of membership of course provide some very intriguing and even clandestine possibilities. I know what you’re thinking; The Immortal Circle is a fabulous idea!

Swainston chooses one of the members of the Circle as our eyes to her imaginative world, “the Messenger of the Gods” Jant Shira. Swainston employs a first person narrative, and absolutely succeeds in bringing Jant to life. One of the strengths of the novel is the fact that the Escazi are drawn from the population, and the gift of immortality doesn’t cause any of the members to automatically lose any preexisting qualities they had prior. They are not Gods, they are people, and capable of the same weaknesses in character, or any other limitations of any other beings, excluding ageing. Jant is among other things, a half-breed, described as a comely, and like many denizens of the Four Lands he has wings. The difference is he is the only one that can fly. Not interested yet? By the way, he is also a former drug pusher, and current junkie, loves his wife, and yet is a womanizer as well. It is through Jant we see the crisis in the Four Lands occur.

The King has fallen and the Insects, seemingly infinite in number, invade. San gives the task of solving the mystery of the Insects to Jant who accomplishes this by both relaying messages from other members of Circle, the mortal kingdoms and the Emperor, and by participating in numerous battles as well. It is the mandate given to him by San that Swainston uses to introduce another one of the strongest features of The Year of Our War and that is the alternate dimension, an “after life” in some circumstances which can be entered by “shifting”, which Jant accomplishes by overdosing on his drug of choice, “scat”. Along with the advent of the Circle, the Shift is just an incredible element by Swainston that only adds to the aforementioned possibilities she can take, not only in this novel, but in future works. The narrative sequences in the novel can be broken down into three primary segments that Swainston weaves in a way that gives the novel its decidedly surreal feel.

The first is Jant and other members of the Circle try to defeat the insect invasion, the second is Jan’s various visits in the shift, and the third I enjoyed the most, Jant’s flashback, telling us one portion of his past and upbringing, and then allowing us to believably witness the product he has become in the present. Swainston depicts Jant’s childhood activities in a Dickensian backdrop showcasing a deprived, tough, street urchin who as truly enough counts many times his ability to run to be one of his assets he is most fortuitous to posses. The flashback segments are some of the most vivid, and as I mentioned before, my favorite portions of The Year of Our War. It is here where we lean the origin of both the admirable qualities, and the faults of the narrator. These three distinctly different venues allow Swainston to display all of her talents. She is able to write about large-scale battles, and political and social maneuvering in the Four Lands; she is able with the “Shift” to give her work that “New Weird” surreal appeal, and the Jant’s flashbacks offer her to display her abilities and to add to the novels content of dark, gritty, realism.

Yes I said “New Weird”, and to traditionalists this is a instant turn off, however it shouldn’t be (and not just for the normal reasons either like great prose, creativity, and depth), The Year of Our War is much more accessible in my opinion to fans of traditional fantasy than many other examples I have read in the past. Where I can see some fans not being able to make the immediate connection with Mieville’s rather daunting prose and verbose style, I think some elements Swainston uses provides enough of a comfort level for such fans. Since I mentioned Mieville he has a quote on the cover of The Year of Our War:

THOUGHTFUL, EXUBERANT, INCREDIBLY INVENTIVE: A BLISTERING DEBUT, AND HONEST-TO-GOD UNPUTDOWNABLE – CHINA MIEVILLE

Swainston is clever with her prose but in a way that translates more easily on the pages. Swainston provides a setting that although cannot be described as overtly medieval, it is decidedly less technologically advanced than our own, and one that evolved rather believably especially when one considers the implications of a world that evolved in the presence of an institution like the Circle of Immortals.

I also rather enjoyed Steph’s even depiction of female characters. She provides female characters of many degrees of personalities. From the ambitious Ata challenging her husband’s position among the Circle, to the prodigious musical talent of Swallow, who Swainston nicely displays that although she is a genius in regards to music she still shows the indecisiveness and stubbornness that can be attributed to her age. Swainston also uses Swallow to give us insight on what the Emperor considers of import when making decisions regarding those petitioning to be immortal. In The Shift we are introduced to another character, the Captain of the Guard, who is depicted as female and seems capable of making even the immortal cringe; while also showing a domestic aspect of Jant through his wife Tern. A real variety here, for example The Year of Our War shows examples of both women in triumphant roles, and a woman getting raped (although due to unique customs not a completely one of the vulgar variety).

Regarding some aspects that I felt weren’t as strong as I expect in her next work No Present Like Time, I really didn’t feel to enamored with the entire Invasion scenes with the Insects, which is a minor complaint when there so much to like about this novel. From what I have seen I think this detraction is often twisted to something more than necessary. It is a mistake in my opinion to define the plot of this novel as mainly the conflict with the Insects. If one does this, I agree one would have a reason to gripe, however, they are completely missing the point. The Year of Our War is more aptly a telling of Jant’s activities during a period of a time where the invasion occurred, and how past and present elements in his life motivated his actions and decisions he both made and didn’t make in the novel. It’s more of how external events molded him than the reverse, which without doubt presents more realism if not a surplus of displays of heroic gallantry. I also want to put down another detraction that I have been hearing regarding the depth of secondary characters, or the perceived lack there of. Although I am certainly a huge advocate of depth in terms of characterization, especially in secondary characters, I don’t understand how some can complain about the lack of this contained in a novel that is written in a first person narrative. This by definition limits a reader’s access to the insights and observations of a single character. After all, Jant albeit immortal, is not omniscient (not to mention much of time he is either under the influence of Cat or suffering from withdrawal) and as such is generally only privy to what those around him exude openly. The detraction is simply based in absurdity.

The Year of Our War establishes a basis for more intriguing opportunities than any other recent debut has provided. Admittedly it doesn’t fall into the traditional fantasy category but as I mentioned before it’s more accessible to fans of such work than many other non-traditional fantasy efforts. A delightfully surreal adventure, an example of a flawless depiction of a flawed narrator and offers something promising.

Author: Jay

protoculture hoarding, devil fruit eating, energon cube stirring, spirited away, chilling in a house of leaves.