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.

The City Stained Red (Sam Sykes)

citystainedred_comic_page1

5 stars

‘Your employers should consult those who make the corpses. We merely clean up after them. Death is our business, Captain. Business is always good in Cier’Djaal.’

Sam Sykes has to be the first author whose book I’ve picked up solely based on personality. I used to devour high fantasy, to the point where it was almost all I read, but that did lead to the conundrum where everything I read felt a little…the same? I read a lot of science fiction, young adult, some classics, even a little contemporary,  but I was looking for something to draw me back into the high fantasy fold.

I’d been following Sam for a while on twitter because he seemed fun and there was a high concentration of writing discussion, owls and dogs on his feed. Eventually I did indeed ‘BUY [his] BOOK’ and I will admit, I didn’t think his personality would translate into the text because, from past experience, ‘swords and sorcery’ never had much of a sense of humour.

I am pleased to say that I was very much mistaken.

The book opens with our battle weary young protagonist, Lenk, on ‘some crappy little boat’ making the decision that he really ought to put down his sword and place his killing days well in his past. I think that you can already guess that he doesn’t really get a chance to even act on that decision before he is thrust once more into fighting, killing and general tomfoolery. You see, he’d love to settle down, but you can’t retire without gold, and the gold he thought was coming his way is now in the pocket of a priest somewhere in the city of Cier’Djaal.

Except, the priest isn’t a priest, a gang footwar is brewing, the giant spiders that make the silk are feeding on something less than wholesome, and the city is full of demons…

I loved this book.

The monsters are really monsters. We’re not talking vaguely humanoid creatures with boobs, we’re talking dragonmen, demons that haul their way out of peoples mouths and cloaked, multi-armed creatures with paintings for faces. It’s delightfully weird.

It feels like that D&D campaign you’d play if you were funnier, more intelligent and more imaginative than you think you are.

The characters are really something else. Amoral yet loyal, sarcastic, running from their pasts, trying desperately, and failing, to care less and be more detached. A motley crew comprised of a reluctant young warrior, a shict far from home, a seven foot dragonman, a thief, a priestess and a boy wizard. A combination that shouldn’t lead to anything less than Armageddon (and, in its own way, does) but actually tends to hilarity and genuine emotional upheaval.

This is maybe not a book for the squeamish, or those without a slightly twisted sense of humour, but I genuinely adored it. A surprise favourite for sure.

So if you like your fantasy wildly imaginative, gory and darkly funny then this is definitely the author for you.