The Promise of the Child (Tom Toner)

1 star

Ok, so I actually had a couple of other reviews lined up to write before this, but I feel I need to talk about this one now. I’m usually a fan of darker books, I don’t tend to get turned off by violence, or gore, or things that are just plain weird, but I do have a real bugbear with the unnecessary use of sexual violence…that, and books without a single female character of note.

So, the book…

It’s touted as an epic space opera in the style of Banks or Reynolds, and it is pretty big…but also wallowing and lacking direction. We follow the POVs of a good ten or so different characters throughout the story, but only two that you’ll actually have any interest in. It’s basically set in our universe but approximately 12,000 years in the future. Humans left earth, some became the immortal Amaranthine, others evolved into strange Prism races, all seeming to be at war with one another. The Amaranthine, being immortal, ended up holding power, but a power that seems to be waning as infighting weakens their society.

Chapters leap around a bit, there’s one set in 14th century Prague that seems to be literally never mentioned again, a couple in the 20th century Mediterranean that turn out to be dreams, and most set in the 147th Century. I’m sure that some of the more superfluous seeming chapters may be important in later books, but since I found them horrendously dull and pretty irrelevant I won’t be reading the later books to find out.

This book could have done with some serious streamlining. I know it was supposed to be some grand space opera, but it wallowed in a way that the greats, the Herbert’s and the Bank’s did not.

Lycaste, the main POV for the novel, is a member of a colour changing race of giants living on Earth. The blurb describes him a ‘lovesick recluse’. What that doesn’t tell you is that he spends the entire book bemoaning the fact he has been friendzoned, and basically ends up trying to kill the man that his ‘beloved’ loves instead. I also really did not like that his ‘reclusiveness’ and the fact he is generally unlikeable seems to be ‘explained away’ by him being on the autistic spectrum…seriously, if you’re going to try and write an autistic character, maybe talk to some autistic people beforehand and don’t make already rare autistic characters into gross stereotypes.  Needless to say, I didn’t like how Lycaste’s character was handled at all. There was some really cruel ableist language chucked around that could really hurt readers on the autistic spectrum.

The second POV that gets the most page space is Sotiris, a 12,000 year old Amaranthine, who originally lived his life in contemporary Cyprus. Personally, I think this entire book would have been much more interesting and much more readable if Sotiris had been the main character. I want to read books about amoral space Immortals, not whingy young men (well, giants) from Earth. Sotiris also gets the most interesting, and least offensive plot line. I’m going to sit here and mourn the epic story that could have been.

So, what is wrong with this book…

Whilst the inclusion of rape, sexism, homophobia and ableism in a book isn’t in itself a red flag, how it is dealt with, and whether it is given the grief it deserves in book, really is.

I mentioned the problematic depiction of a character on the autism spectrum earlier, and the fact that the book is just generally too long and poorly paced, but there’s more.

There are only a handful of named female characters in this enormous book and pretty much all of them either get raped or die…sometimes both. There’s even an attempt to explain away the lack of older female Amaranthine by saying they all ‘go senile’ earlier than the men…which doesn’t follow medical statistics at all, but, well, you do you. Also, I’m not going to go into detail about it here because I know it could hurt people, but the character I mentioned earlier, the one who doesn’t love Lycaste, literally…I’m not sure the author really intended it to be this way…but it reads like a friendzone revenge fantasy . I had to skip that part entirely, it was so gross and hurtful and unnecessary. All I’ll say is that it involved pregnancy and sexual assault…

There’s also some really rampant and completely out of place homophobia in this book. One character goes on a rant about how he thinks it’s disgusting that two men loved one another, just, out of nowhere, for no real reason. Later, a character is goaded by another character that he’s a ‘pretty man’ and ‘gay’, as if it’s a bad thing?? Then later some dude, that looks like a kid, drugs Lycaste and tried to sleep with him?? Why a) are any of these scenes necessary and b) how did no-one read any of this and think ‘maybe this is a little bit homophobic?’

As I mentioned earlier, you can put the most horrible, disgusting content in your books as long as you justify in text that the actions are abhorrent. You’re allowed to make points, to use shock and horror, as long as it doesn’t read like torture or revenge porn. Using rape to make a character look like a monster is maybe not advised but possible, however, take care with context! If you’re writing a book  and you don’t take care not to romanticize that act, then you’ve written something that actively damages rape victims of any gender.

Conclusion…

This a big book with an interesting plotline and envious scope…but it rolled some critical fails when it came to nuanced use of gendered violence. As a woman, specifically a queer woman, this one was not for me.

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

 

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.