Fair Rebel (Steph Swainston)

 

3.5 stars

Fifteen years after the last devastating Insect attack, the immortal Circle is finally ready to launch an offensive against their implacable enemies. This time they have a new weapon – gunpowder. Hopes are high.

But the Circle’s plans are threatened when the vital barrels of gunpowder go missing. Jant, the Circle’s winged messenger, is tasked to investigate. Soon it becomes clear that the theft is part of a deadly conspiracy . . . and Jant and his friends are among the targets.

As tensions rise, Jant races to foil the conspirators. Can he expose them in time – or will the crisis blow the Fourlands apart?

My first introduction to the Fourlands was a good seven years ago now, in a book large enough to take someone’s head off. The blurb read as if all my favourite disparate plot characteristics had been forged into one enormous vat of excellence. Immortals, a winged messenger, drug fuelled crossings to wildly strange parallel worlds. Thankfully, it was as good as I had hoped.

Skip forward eight years and we have a book that I did not think was coming. “Fair Rebel’ is the fifth instalment in the Fourlands series, the story of a land being slowly destroyed by a wave of unrelenting, world-eating insects. Without giving too much away about the plot of the initial trilogy, because I think you should probably go and read that first, fifteen years have passed since an onslaught that stemmed the tide of insects, even if only for a little while. The Circle, a coterie of the very best militarists that the Fourlands has to offer, gifted immortality for as long as they remain ‘the greatest’, are planning a staggering assault on the insects far to the North, using their new secret weapon, gunpowder. Obviously, this does not all entirely go to plan.

One of my favourite things about these books has always been the voice of our protagonist, the immortal Messenger, Jant. Fate gave him fully functioning wings in a world where, for most, they’ve become little more than vestigial. The Jant of the original trilogy spent more time in the drug jettisoned worlds of the shift than in the Fourlands, but he seems more tempered in ‘Fair Rebel’, maybe a little more aware of just what they have to lose if he takes his eye from the ball. His relationships are firmer, truer, he seems more reluctant to disappear from them than the immortal of fifteen years ago. It raises a lot of questions about humanity and what happens to our humanity if immortality intercedes.

There was, however, one big elephant in the room for me when I was reading this book. The word ‘gypsy’ is used liberally throughout. I’m pretty sure it was used critically (well, semi-critically), indeed in the book the ethnic group that it’s used for and their persecution is a huge story theme. It’s just difficult when you’re physically wincing every time you see the word. You’ve just got to question whether it was necessary to use such a loaded word in text. I mean, it’s a fantasy world, just come up with a fancy fantasy word. Likewise, the plotline, which obviously had some basis in world events and the current post-Brexit bigotry we’re encountering, wasn’t handled as delicately as it needed to be. I’m not sure whether we’re all still a little bit tender for narratives about domestic terrorism, especially when coupled with a loaded use of the word ‘gypsy’. Swainston’s books have always dealt in the more fringe realms of fantasy; sex, drugs and death, and were probably never really for people who like ‘happy go lucky’ books, but there are definitely parts of this plot that came up as a big question mark for me.

So it was a bit of an up and down experience for me. I love the character of Jant, I love being back in the world and the depth and detail of Swainston’s work, I’m just not sure that the plotline worked and I ended up a little bit worried that it might even be offensive to some readers. I felt like in places it was trying to make a point but then never really made it. Is this supposed to be a book about terrorism? If you want to have a discussion about the broad painting of marginalised ethnic groups as ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ purely due to the actions of a few then why is this book about white people? It’s either an allegory for the treatment of actual Romani people or an allegory for the treatment of the Muslim community in the world at the moment, it can’t be both, and it felt a little bit like a weird, mind-mashing mix of the two.

So, my recommendation at the moment is to read the first three books. I’m not quite sure where this book sits with me. I enjoyed it when I was reading it, but thinking about it and writing this review I started to realise just how uncomfortable I’d been with the way some of the plot points were handled. I’ll be interested to see how the next book continues the story, but I’m disappointed with the way that this one unfolded.

Many thanks to Gollancz and Netgalley for a copy in return for an honest review.

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