The Modern World is the third of the Castle stories and as such would be a bad place for a new reader to start. There is much reliance on readers being familiar with the Shift, the Vermiform and the Circle, and though I would never discourage anyone from starting where ever they liked in the sequence, I think the book is more satisfying when taken as the culmination of the story begun in The Year of Our War.
For newcomers, Steph Swainston's work will appeal to fans of Mervyn Peake, M. John Harrison, Michael Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time and China Mievelle, with its fantasy world given immediacy by all too human characters and a shot of the new weird, through alternate realities entered through drug use, and an implacable insect enemy seemingly borrowed from Robert Heinlein.
In this story we begin with Jant being sent to retrieve Saker's daughter Cyan, who has run away from home to get up to unsavoury acts as teenagers whose fathers are centuries old immortal archers are wont to do. We are immediately reacquainted with Jant's bad past, his self-deception and his weakness but also his sense of humour and the humanity that his faults give him. He thinks he sees far from his lofty vantage point, up in the air on those wings of his, but in many ways he's as deluded as anyone else. But once Cyan is brought back to the fold, the story really stops being about Jant and becomes more about the threat of the insects and the fate of Lightning.
In this book, the threat of the insects becomes the greatest it has ever been. Their behaviour shifts, and a mistake by one of the Circle of Immortals, an act of pride, threatens to allow the Fourlands to finally be overrun. To deal with this, the Emperor San himself finally enters the fray and it was definitely not what I was expecting.
Swainston's tales have from the start pointed to the downsides of wanting immortality, that it becomes an end to itself, and that is once again fully explored here. The Circle is not shown in its best light, save in Rayne and Lightning. At the same time, the nature of the Shift in relation to the Fourlands is teased out a little more.
Unlike in the previous two books and fitting well with the sense of power on the wane, Jant's sexual encounters are tinged with embarrassment and he is less braggy. Certainly the ending brings an interesting shift to Jant's insistence that immortals do not change because their bodies do not.
The Modern World is as well written both stylistically and plot-wise as the previous two books. It is highly enjoyable and I read it over the course of two evenings, all three hundred odd, densely typeset pages. That Above the Snowline is Jant's origin story and that the next novel will supposedly not deal with Jant is interesting, as one could say that the Fourlands feels too well mapped now, too cohesive that future novels might lack the ability to surprise as the previous novels and this one have.