08 September 2008

Retro Review: The Year of Our War by Steph Swainston

After reviewing several recent books, I decided that I would try to do something a little different and review The Year of our War by Steph Swainston. I read Year quite a while ago, but it has stuck with me ever sense. Moreover, it's a rather obscure book that I doubt many people have encountered.

Year is set in a world which has continuously been at war for centuries. In this world, there are four races, all of which are (more or less) united in war against a race of Insects. The war is lead by a circle of immortals, each of whom personifies some specific aspect of war and/or life. The main character of the book is one of these immortals, Jant Comet, who, due to a quirk in his heritage, happens to be the only being in the entire world capable of flying. As such, he is the official messenger of the Circle, and is the only one with a really good idea of everything that's going on. The book covers a particularly disastrous turn of events which nearly leads to the insect victory.

The book's portrayal of Jant is nothing less than brilliant. Jant's history, slowly revealed during the course of the book, shows that he is a deeply scarred individual who stumbled into his immortality. He's addicted to a powerful narcotic pain killer (called Cat) which allows him, and him alone, to transport hims mind to a parallel universe. As the book goes on, this parallel world becomes more and more prominent in the storyline, and we get to see poor Jant descend into the absolute depths of addiction trying to unravel an increasing complicated plot. Jant is also incredibly insecure in his immortality and constantly feels that he has failed everyone around him. The depth of this character is incredible, and the book is worth reading for this alone. Fortunately, however, there is more.

Year is also a very, for lack of a better world, richly detailed novel. It assails all five senses, with excellent descriptions of scents, tastes, sounds (or lack thereof) associated with the battles against the insects. You will feel Jant shivering as he flies through a snowstorm. You will hear the silent shuffling of the insect battalions as they tear apart Jant's companions. You will even shudder with horror as Jant encounters a Vermiform guard, and I can still see my mental image of the guard dissolving into a puddle of worms. The image still sends a chill down my spine, in fact.

The book is not perfect. It spends entirely too long on a tangential story that doesn't add anything to the core story. The story also doesn't spend very much time describing some characters who probably deserve a better description. Jant's wife, in particular, and the emperor San are sadly lacking any form of depth. Fortunately, the other characters make up for this deficiency with brilliant dialogue and characterization.

In short, The Year of our War is an excellent debut novel, and I hope that the sequels are a tenth the book this one is. I eagerly await the day that this book, and its sequels, are available in ebook form.

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