All mortals dream, it seems, of joining the Castle Circle. Always pushing for immortality. Always seeking to stop the spin of the wheel of fortune, as it rips through their hands, leaving splinters. How splendid it would be to be eternal, and safe. But at the same time it is daunting to join such a fellowship. The dispositions of the other Eszai are unknown. Make a wrong move, and the pack draws together against you.
The problem (one of them) with having a TBR pile of gargatuan proportions is that you tend to be late to the party on, well, everything. Take The Year of Our War by Steph Swainston, a hot new novel from a hot new author... back in 2004. Swainston has had two other books published since this, her debut, whereas I've only just had chance to see what all the fuss is about.
Likened to the work of China Mieville and Mervyn Peake, amongst others (I suspect more for the setting than the style), The Year of Our War is, in case you hadn't already heard, Not Your Average Fantasy Novel. Characters wear denim, read newspapers, take drugs, and exchange dialogue like this before going into battle:
Tawny's well-chosen girlfriend, Vireo Summerday, was also gigantic. She was scratching her leg by poking a stick through the joints of her plate armour. I couldn't fathom Vireo, she was neither terrified of nor attracted to me. She wouldn't call a spade a spade if she could call it a fucking bastard. Lightning bowed to her; she winked at me.
"Good morning," said Lightning.
"Yo," said Tawny. "All right, Jant?"
"I've been ready bloody ages and nothing has happened," said Tawny. "When do we get to fight?"
Our narrator is, as will probably already be obvious, something of a self-centred chap ("I couldn't fathom...", anyone?); the world as seen through his eyes tends to revolve around him, and others' pain is rarely so profound as his, even when self-inflicted (he takes most of the drugs). His name is Jant Shira, aka Comet or the Messenger, and he - like most of the major characters in the book - is an immortal. He is one of the Eszai, a group of individuals granted eternal life (though not complete invulnerability; Eszai can be killed) by the inscrutable Emperor, San. Together, the Eszai form the Castle Circle, an elite coterie that meddles in mortal affairs not unlike Greek gods, and whose numbers are strictly controlled - membership can be gained only by an existing immortal, marrying one (although this confers only a dependent immortality), or proving some ineluctable talent to catch the Emperor's eye.
Jant Shira's talent is that he can fly - enabling him to function as the Emperor's messenger, scout, and spy - a fact introduced early on with a certain bravura abruptness:
I strode away from the fortress wall towards the cliff, hearing the river torrent below. Two strides, and I started running. I forced at the ground, accelerating, faster and faster to the edge of the cliff. Three, two, one. I spread my wings and kicked over the edge as the ground fell away. I turned in a long calm arc down towards the camp.
The Eszai's current preoccupation (insofar as they ever concentrate on one thing for very long) is a protracted war with the Insects - voracious ant-like beings bent on apparently-mindless destruction, and proving rather successful at it, having depopulated vast swathes of land and filled the ruined towns with their paper constructions. The book launches us straight into the action, as mortal King Dunlin leads a sortie against the paper Wall that separates human from Insect territory - all of which we glimpse through the eagle eyes of Jant, who carries reports and transmits orders and generally sees everything (at a remove, as the Eszai necessarily view mortal affairs, until something happens that draws him down to bloody his own hands).
But the war is not the whole story, even as the Insects make unprecedented territorial gains and outlook grows increasingly bleak (hurting even the immortals, via threats to their estates and thus their income). Threaded between the battle episodes are the intertwined tales of several immortals, and the mortals linked to them. One of these is Jant's, who shares lurid episodes from his pre-Eszai street-kid life in the city of Hacilith (at one point concluding, wryly, "That's all I'm going to say about my past for the moment, because I keep receiving unhappy letters from the Hacilith Tourist Board."), interferes in matters that really aren't his business, and disappears into a drug-induced haze at regular intervals:
I pushed the needle through the seal of the phial and pulled clear liquid back into the barrel. My resistance broke down and the symptoms overwhelmed me. The muscles in my arms twitched, and shivers ran down my back, ruffling my feathers. [...]
I loosened the makeshift tourniquet and pushed the plunger home. A bead of blood and cat welled up. The shot hit hard. I decided it would be a good idea to lie on the floor.
I smiled, I was happy with the floor. The worn carpet was warm and bits of me were merging into it. Rayne just looked worried. I tried to reassure her but I couldn't manage the shape of the words. Some. More. Way, way too much.
Now I am not my problem. I smiled and fainted, smiling.
Jant's addiction is not merely an edgy peccadillo for a different sort of a fantasy hero, nor a way to crank up the tension by hampering him (whether through the haze, or the withdrawal) when he's needed most. It's a genuine character flaw, a lifelong flirtation with self-destruction: it's a thread of self-hatred amid the glibness, a testing of the boundaries, an attempt to exert some measure of control by a man who is so frequently powerless. He lacks even the power of his own mortality; as he comments after Dunlin's death (somewhat disingenuously, it happens, but the point holds), "He was in control of his own life. Let me know when you find even one immortal who can honestly say that."
The addiction causes real trouble, and not just for Jant himself; his friends repeatedly bemoan his irresponsibility, while the Emperor hints that his position might be in jeopardy. Another result is that the narrative can be choppy, since we only see things when Jant does - and if Jant is out of it for a week, so are we. Well-executed though this might be, it has the side-effect of severing us from some of the more interesting moments in the other character's lives, stealing some of their stories' resonance and occasionally threatening the coherence of certain plot strands. (It also, finally, turns out to harbour a vital plot point).
Another storyline - that of immortal Lightning's would-be romance with a mortal musician, Swallow - engages more directly with the issues arising from immortality. Lightning (given, apparently, to extravagant infatuations) wants to marry Swallow and thus bring her within the Circle; Swallow, for her part, longs to be immortal but wishes to achieve it own her terms, through her own talent, rather than through another's agency. When she barely survives a clash with the Insects, Lightning is frantic and inconsolable, but Swallow is left with a glimpse of the hollow centre of Eszai life:
"Immortality's pointless compared to what I can do."
"Die?" said Lightning, with a voice like slate.
"Change. It's important for me not to forget this lesson - I'll bear it in mind always until it becomes part of me..."
Indeed, without overstating her point, Swainston quietly points up a number of alternative forms of immortality in the course of the novel, like Swallow's music, or the ever-expanding clan of Ata's mortal offspring (and other children). For the Eszai, there are no (or very few) consequences; their perspective is such that individual mortal lives matter little, that every pain is eventually transmuted into anecdote, and they hardly ever have to learn, or change their ways:
I sighed. "It never ends, does it?"
"Consider yourself lucky that it doesn't, Messenger."
Lightning understood. He clapped my shoulder, face radiant. "Don't worry, Jant," he said. "Times will pass, and we'll survive. We'll live long enough for all these trials to become satisfying memories and the best tales."
I've mentioned the occasionally problematic structure. The prose, too, can be a little wobbly and over-eager at times; within one three-line exchange of dialogue we get three inelegant said-bookisms (remarked / rebuked / taunted). Yet on the whole the style is refreshing in its sharp, pared-down earthiness; Jant proves an amusingly dry commentator (who only sometimes edges on self-pity); and some of the descriptive passages truly soar:
This may sound strange but her voice is the main reason I love her. She breathes rounded words like the heady steam from mulled wine or cocoa, word fumes glazed with brandy and syrupy accents. I love languages, and my greatest wish is to be sugar-preserved in Tern's slow voice forever. I gazed at her fondly, warmed by the rogue beam of sunlight. She had a long-sleeved, faded cream dress, mostly lace. Chic, slight and delicate, she looked like the icing on a chocolate divan. This is the lady I chose to make immortal.