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.
Apart from a little too much of the "Insect battles" (and in fact the words Insect and mandibles) this is again another story about yes- more Insects. A little more variation would have been nice, although there was nice twist on the insect plot.
The narration of Jant was again quirky and blunt, punctured with foul language mainly tastefully used. A little less sexually exciting though with no real love plot of any kind, and very lacking in Tern. A couple of chapters when the narration flicked to Lightning were interesting but didn't really work in a one person narrative.
Once the story gets going (takes a while) it's good, and it has some good twists and develops a few characters. A brief trip into the shift, and a tiny bit on drugs, but this is mainly focussing on the word which they live in, and where the immortality comes from. So if you're looking for another sexy/drugs and alcohol fantasy it's not really in that style, but I think we're still looking at a couple more books to come!
'The Modern World' and 'Dangerous Offspring' are the same book, different (better) cover on 'The modern world'. As I found to my cost as I have both of them
That said, this will appeal to those who liked the earlier books and those that didn't are unlikely to find anything in this instalment to change their minds. The writing is as elliptical as ever, with some passages seeming to have no immediate relevance (Lightning relating family trees for two pages springs to mind), but they do make a point and are best not skipped.
The only major change in this book is that Steph. makes a concession to new readers with almost a whole page (shock) of back story, so start with 'The year of our war', or you really won't have much of a clue about what's going on.
The third and possibly not last part of Steph's epic Castle series (Well its called a trilogy but I've heard that one before and theres so much left to get wrapped up.) As we have come to expect from her work we get a tale that really does throw the reader to the lions from page one and lets face it, those who've read her work before really don't; object to this type of treatment. Fights to the death, sieges, multiple plots, what more does a reader want, this really is the new generation of Fantasy although if you haven't read the first two novels you really are missing out and that is where I would suggest starting if you haven't read them already.
I picked up this book (known in America as Dangerous Offspring) because I'd heard some interesting things about Swainston as an author - people either seemed to love or loathe her - and I decided it was time I made up my own mind. At the very least, she would be an interesting read and as she is part of the `New Weird' movement - apparently - it would give me a better idea of exactly constitutes the New Weird...
Written in first person viewpoint, it gives a slice of the adventures of Jant, a flying immortal messenger. Jant's role is vital as the Empire is engulfed in a stalemated war with an aggressive insect race. The gripping and disturbing Prologue is a flashback when Jant was involved in an ambush many years earlier. If action scenes in grisly detail tick your boxes, then this book is certainly worth consideration. However, it's so much more than that.
If I understand it correctly, the New Weird movement is trying to break away from fantasy worlds stuck in Tolkein-like landscapes, where people move around on horseback and battle elves, dwarves and suchlike. They are supposed to include aspects of our modern existence, like drug-taking, fairly explicit sex with characters not classically heroic, but far more nuanced. Hm. Ok. Somewhere between classical and urban fantasy, then... Why couldn't they say that? In fairness to Swainston, I've read her protests about sub-dividing the genre up too much and it seems that she regards herself as a straightforward fantasy writer.
What is undeniable is that she is an outstanding writer. I didn't start this book with joy in my heart. Being the shallow sort, I'm unduly influenced by book covers - and the UK cover of this one has to qualify as one of the dreariest offerings, ever. Once I opened it, the tiny font didn't enthuse me, either. However, I persevered - and I'm very glad I did. Because this is one of the best written fantasy books I've ever read.
She isn't particularly original in her world-building. There is an Empire, ruled by a rather scary, unpredictable character who is utterly authoritarian. There is a viciously effective insect race who have been waging war on the Empire, which isn't going very well. Fantasy fans won't be boggling in amazement at either of these storylines - or at the notion that an elite band of immortals who report directly to the Emperor are at the heart of the battle. Immortality is staple fare in both science fiction and fantasy. What makes Swainston stand out from the crowd is her very effective, powerful character depiction. By the end of the novel, I found myself genuinely moved when one of Jant's immortal colleagues loses their ability to live forever. After reading literally dozens of books portraying characters with extended lifespans, this is the book that gave me the greatest insight into what that might entail.
I've also read plenty of books with an airborne protagonist. But Jant's vivid description of the landscape beneath him as he flew long-distance to deliver a message to the Emperor, was a joy. Jant isn't the kind of person I generally like - he's got a reckless streak, with self- destructive tendencies, but Swainston's writing had me right in his corner. By the way, the fact that it is the third book in a series is no cause for concern. Unlike far too many other authors, Swainston is capable of writing a completely self-contained storyline, while using characters who have featured in her previous work. I wasn't even aware it was part of a series until I Googled her.
I have a shocking memory, so can unknowingly pick up a book and nearly get to end before remembering that I've read it before. It won't happen with this one. This is one of the handful of books I'll be able to recall - not in minute detail, that would be asking too much of my goldfish-like memory. But Swainston's skilful treatment of the unusual and the different is sufficiently outstanding that a year from now, I'll still be thinking about aspects of this book - not least the vivid action scenes. And if you enjoy detailed, intelligent fantasy that is compellingly told, then don't let the lacklustre cover and unfriendly print size put you off...
Great stuff! Swainston manages to keep her imaginitive world feeling very fresh and interesting. We learn so much more about the secondary characters and really get to feel some of what they're going through. The story starts quickly and with wondrous skill, making this a fantastic read.
Definitely read the others first, as they're important to the characters and the plot, but don't wait before reading this third instalment!
'The Modern World' shares the same distinctive, sometimes baroque, always nuanced, style of Steph Swainston's two previous novels, placing it firmly in the Castle sequence. As the third book in a fantasy sequence, the reader might approach it with an expectation of conclusion, expecting the pat finishing touches of a conventional trilogy. Instead, Swainston reminds the reader firmly that whatever it might be, this is not a conventional trilogy. She deftly combines a satisfying sense of closure to some plot strands, whilst deliberately declining other opportunities to 'conventionalise' the narrative into a finale. 'The Modern World' shows an ever maturing sense of balance between purity of authorial intent and accessibility that certainly worked well for this reader.
All three of Steph's books so far have woven a complex narrative dialogue between the first person narration of Jant, characterised by his immediate engagement with the worldly events of the Fourlands, and the deeper, and more fundamental story of Lightning, played out in the context of those events. At once the oldest and perhaps powerful of the immortal Circle, but at the same time the most emotionally circumscribed, the deep passions that lie within Lightning's persona have steadily emerged through the stories as much through what Lightning doesn't do or say, the options to engage with the world he declines and postpones, as much as what he actually does truly participate in and do.
The three books are very much about the progress of Lightning back to humanity, but Jant - the all-seeing messenger - does not retell the story around that theme. Typically, Jant tells an utterly self-centred version of events. The tension between these two threads - the central story of Lightning, and Jant's personal passage - gives the three books part of their particular style and taste. The third perhaps leans more deliberately towards the story of Lightning, despite Jant, and I felt it almost the more comfortable and certainly confident for that.
As in her previous novels, at its best Swainston's writing has a beautiful sense of timing and rythmn. It would be easy to focus on the staccatic battle sequence of the opening chapter, but pause on the chaotic timelessness in the Shift sequence, or the sensually languid final chapters, and consider the language, tempo and style - Steph's always fine writing is elevated to excellence.
I look forward to seeing where Steph takes both her world and writing next.
'The Modern World', the third book in Steph Swainston's Castle series (and if you haven't read the first two - why not?) is a fantastic piece of writing. She started out a good writer but now.......words fail. To say that I was `blown away' by this latest volume would about cover it.
The book begins with a real `chuck `em in at the deep end' bang - the brutal carnage, devastation and loss following a night attack by the Insects is dropped in your lap without any warning or set up. She then effortlessly shifts a gear to give a wonderfully observed description of our narrator Jant's flight from the frontlines back to the Castle. The unfolding landscapes below him, the physical thrill of flight even in such terrible circumstances; beautiful, rich and stark description. You can really feel the benefits of Swainston's commitment to research - I understand she goes gliding to better understand the experience of a central character that flies.
From this bravura beginning, which has a brilliant twist, the story barrels along at a tremendous pace. A new and shocking development in Insect aggressive capabilities results in the raising of the largest army ever seen in the Fourlands and the Emperor San taking the unprecedented step of leaving the Castle to lead his forces in the field. The tension and uncertainty of fighting what is almost a new enemy - previous strategies are now worthless and new ones must be found - is conveyed with perfect pitch. Running through this you have the driven obsession of Frost the Architect to carry out a grand plan and then attempt to make good the unforeseen catastrophic results of her scheme. The fortunes of war reflected in an individual psyche.
However, this is anything but merely a story about hacking at the Insect invaders with inventive use of Medieval and Renaissance technologies (and her understanding of these technologies is another testament to deep research) there are other stories and subtexts to enjoy. The main protagonist, Jant, whom I would hesitate to call the 'Hero' as I don't think the Castle stories are that simple, finds himself revisiting past haunts, and past life-styles, to hunt for the wayward daughter of a fellow Immortal. This chase is underscored by what I see as a primary subtext in this book; the passage of time, the matter of maturing, the (necessary) differences between generations and the problems of communication across that divide. This theme culminates with an incredibly tense finale between father and daughter (without an Insect in sight) that faked me out completely as to where it was going but ended in retrospect the only way it could.
Such hiding of `serious' content in the structure of what is at the surface a fantasy roller-coaster is nothing new for Swainston. The previous volume No Present Like Time has a juxtaposition of philosophical and political systems with the Darwinian meritocracy of the Castle's Circle coming up against the classic democracy of the island of Tris - with predictable misunderstanding and consequences. The real beauty of these subtle depths to her narratives though is their unobtrusiveness. There really is no need to go into the deeper reading to enjoy a rollicking fantasy adventure but, if you do, the whole is enhanced.
Even with all I've said there is much more in the book to savour and enjoy. The return to Shift - that strange surreal world that reads like a cross-between Lewis Carroll, Salvador Dali and early Clive Barker - which in this volume takes on a very scary face indeed. The insights into San's past and that of some of the other immortals - the archer Lightning even gets to narrate a chapter of his own past, before Jant's time. The extensive cast of characters, each with their own very individual traits and foibles, and the complex evolving web of relationships they create. The beautifully detailed description of architecture and landscape.
Now I have to make the time to have a more measured read of all three books. My usual practice is to only read sequels after rereading their predecessors - to totally get the through line. But this time I was just too keen to see what was going to happen. This book is genuinely "unputdownable" - I hold Steph Swainston responsible for my current Sleep Debt and look forward eagerly to the next volume.
As I have said in reviews of the first two books, Steph Swainston creates a unique fantasy vision. The world called the Fourlands itself is not unique; but there are immortals in it, held together in the Circle by the emperor San who may be thousands of years old (the "may be" part is my only peeve on the book, but that comes later). The main character, Jant, is the immortal called Comet, the Messenger, and he works hard to control a very mortal-like drug addiction. There are parallel worlds, which Jant can visit during his drug trips, and he finds out in earlier books they are real. And there are starship troopers-like Insects, that have infested the northmost part of the Fourlands (and have come from one of the parallel worlds).
In this book, the armies of the Fourlands (and their architect) believe they can push the Insects back with a dam, push them back with water. No spoilers here, but this turns out to be a very bad thing. This bad thing happen while Jant is off to find his best immortal friend Lightning's teenage daughter Cyan, who happens to be on a drug trip of her own and Jant ends up chasing her into one of the parallel worlds.
In the end, the battle to end all battles against the Insects ensue, some immortals are killed (they can be killed, they just do not age) and more mystery is added.
My favorite part of Steph's writing is her descriptions: Jant flying, the palaces, even battles. Take a look at Steph's picture on her website...where does this lovely young Brit ever get the background and experience to write a battle sequence like one where Jant has been sliced across the middle by one of the Insects:
"I clutch one hand instinctively across my stomach but the gash is too long to hold together and my fingers sink under the edge of the flap of skin. It is warm and very slick. I feel a loop of gut spill out over my arm. I look down and see it adhering to the ground, picking up pieces of soil and grass blades. Unable to stop it, I watch it uncoil out of my midriff from under the mail shirt. The guts slither over each other; they are different shades of grey and firm to the touch."
Yummy, huh? Her descriptions make the scenes quite imaginable. At the end of the book, the scene is set at one of Lightening's many manors (you get rich if you live long!)...when Steph describes it, I see the Palace of Versailles in my mind's eye. And she must have done some skydiving or gliding, as Jant's flying is laid out in most imaginative words (she lists quite a bit of research material on swordplay, archery, architecture on her website, but nothing on flying...maybe she flies secretly at night away from the muggles in jolly ole Bradford?)
My only gripe with the book is that I wanted to know more. Some secrets are revealed, but the big ones (where did the Emperor come from? how does he know about the parallel worlds and why does he ask Jant to keep it a secret? how does he form the Circle and make the Immortals immortal?)
The plot of the book starts off with what could be considered incidentals (who cares that one of the immortals has a teenage daughter that has run off? Let's battle some insects or visit some psychedelic parallel worlds). But she pulls it all together in the end.
Congrats, Steph, great work.
Originally posted on my website, www dot duskbeforethedawn dot net.