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The Year of Our War [Paperback]

Steph Swainston
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Jan. 4 2004

Unique among his fellow immortals and mortal folk alike, Jant Comet can fly. His talent is a gift and a curse that has earned him a place in the Castle Circle as Messenger to the Emperor San -- soaring high and free above the bloody battlefields of his world, carrying word back to his master of progress and regress in the ever-escalating conflict between man and the awful armies of giant, flesh-devouring insects.

But while Jant's duty is to remain neutral in the petty squabbles and power plays of the fifty who will neither age nor die naturally, bitter rivalries that have festered for centuries now threaten to incite a savage civil war. And Jant may be the only being alive capable of stemming the onrushing tide of destruction and the unstoppable insect infestation. For only he can gain entrance -- through extreme doses of the narcotic that owns his soul -- into a place of darkest wonders and revelations; a strange and horrific alternate reality that none but Jant Comet believes exists.

A literary triumph of the first water -- bold, stylish, and breathtakingly original -- Steph Swainston's The Year of Our War ascends like a rocket to the upper reaches of the imagination and loudly heralds the arrival of a true modern master of the fantastic.


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Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

In British author Swainston's first novel, a well-written, if occasionally uneven, fantasy, three humanoid species coexist successfully in a medieval world under the rule of a benevolent, immortal emperor, supported by a circle of 50 immortal warriors. For many centuries, however, this civilization has been under attack by Insects, monstrous creatures who convert everything they conquer into the Paperlands, endless wastelands of bizarre white walls and tunnels. Now one of the immortals, Jant the Messenger, addicted to the hallucinatory drug called cat, which allows him access to an alternate universe, has discovered the Insects' secret. Despite his debilitating addiction, Jant must find a way to preserve his world against the monsters' increasing onslaught. Numerous bloody battles keep the action moving, and Swainston has a powerful sense of the surreal, but her domestic scenes tend to drag and verge on soap opera. Jant is an engaging antihero, though most of the other characters are fairly flat. This off-beat fantasy should appeal to fans of China Miéville's fiction as well as to those who remember Roger Zelazny's Amber series with fondness.
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Review

“Thoughtful, exuberant, incredibly inventive, funny but never whimsical or mannered: a blistering debut, and honest-to-God unputdownable.” (China Miéville, author of Perdido Street Station)

“Swainston’s first novel brings a bold new vision to the fantasy genre, combining classic fantasy elements with imaginative new images.” (Library Journal)

“Vibrant, colourful, tirelessly inventive and effortlessly weird, Stephanie Swainston has thrown the map away.” (M. John Harrison)

“Extraordinary…stunning…compelling…seriously new. … Swainst has considerably vivid powers of invention.” (Locus)

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Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars A new type of fantasy Dec 23 2006
Format:Paperback
After a while, one grows tired of elves and orcs and barbarians and the typical fantasy stories. Steph Swainston has invented a new and unique world with none of the normal suspects in it, with great imagination that still leaves a lot to the readers to ponder.

She creates a world with mortals and immortals, where the immortals must earn their place by being the best at what they can do: the best swordsman, the best sailor, the best archer. Immortality is betowed upon them by the Emperor San...where he got the ability to do this is one of the mysteries of the series.

Jant Comet is one of the immortals, called the Messenger because of his unique ability to fly. Because he is the Emperor's Messenger, we get to see the politics of the realm, and even see Jant change a few things.

The Emperor's realm is at war with the Insects, who look like bugs many times the size of humans and who build paper nests out of counqueorer lands. Where the Insects have come from is yet another of the mysteries in the book and series.

Jant is an addict to a substance called Cat. Ms. Swainston's portrayl of Jant's addiction, in this book and the next, is dead on...she must have known or studied addicts quite closely.

Jant's addiction gives him entrance into a parallel world, a world he and we the readers are not sure is real until we explore it further. Then it becomes tied in with the Emperor's world and the Insects.

Ms. Swainston mixes political intrigue (immortals battling each other for position; non-immortals vs. the Emperor; mortals vying to become immortals), war (vividly imagines human vs. insect fighting scenes, shades of Stormship Troopers!), addiction and Jant's journey of self-discovery into an excellent fantasy novel.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A really good read! June 28 2005
Format:Paperback
I'm not sure what it is, but British writers know how to produce a really interesting book. Now this isn't Shakespear, but the action and the characters are interesting and you will certainly want to read the other books in this series.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Love it. Dec 3 2013
By Taillow
Format:Kindle Edition
I really loved this book, it had a lot of elements that I haven't seen in many books, don't want to spoil things for people.

At times it was a bit tough to follow, but still a fantastic read. I would recommend it to someone who enjoys fantasy :)
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 3.4 out of 5 stars  30 reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting and Original Sept. 12 2010
By The Evil Hat (evilhatDOTblogspotCOM) - Published on Amazon.com
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"I wanted to ask the Emperor how life was, back when god walked the earth. What did it really look like? Sound like? What did it mean to live when everybody knew everything? While San wrote, the pen scratching, I tried to imagine existence with god nearby, enjoying its creation, when there was no Insects, no Castle - this two-thousand-year-old stone, just lush grass. The Fourlands does not really belong to us - it is god's playground; god gave us responsibility for its creation, which we have failed to defend.

As ever, San read my mind. Almost imperceptibly, he said, 'Once there was peace.'"

The Year of Our War is a book that, at first, looks just about as generic as fantasy can get. We've got a (literally) faceless, inhuman enemy; we've got an immortal protagonist who can fly and, due to his ability to access the Shift, may be instrumental in the war against the Insects; we've got a series of squabbling, immortal lords, generally far more interested in increasing their own fortunes than in banding together and actually accomplishing something; and, to cap it all off, we've got a semi-divine Emperor ruling over the whole thing. And yet, The Year of Our War is anything but a traditional fantasy. The novel is set apart both by the excellent characterization and first person prose of its main character, Jant, and by its interesting take on immortality.

Now, I've seen some people say that Jant is a poor character because of his weak personality. This is absolutely baffling to me. It's true that Jant is not the driving force behind most of the events of the book, but since when does a character not being a traditional hero invalidate their depth? Jant's very much the junior among the immortals of the Emperor's Circle, and he is constantly dragged into the schemes of the older, more powerful, and more forceful immortals. Since before his time in the Circle, he has used the hallucinogenic scolopendium. His drug use is one of the few things that sets him apart amongst the immortals, and his habit has, if anything, worsened. It hasn't, however, given him a degree of control over his own life; instead, he's just added yet another master yanking him in yet another direction. One of the only times he's ever taken direct control of something in his life was to commit a terrible crime that he now regrets. He's conflicted, intelligent, and immensely self centered. He is absolutely oblivious to the feelings of those around him, something never more obvious than the scenes with his wife, Tern. All of that points to a deep, realistic character to me, even if he's not the easiest to always cheer along with.

Jant isn't always the most honest, nor knowledgeable of narrators. When one of his ideas backfires, he rarely admits guilt. Any events that took place without him present might as well not have happened, as far as his recollections are concerned. This gives the book a meandering feel at times, because sub plots are dropped and resumed almost at random. This can be annoying, yes, but it also gives the book a more lifelike feel, one that timelier pacing would be unable to provide. Paradoxically, the focused nature of the narrative is what lends The Year of Our War its sense of scale. When Jant returns to an area unmentioned for a hundred pages, only to find it burned to the ground, it's apparent that the war with the Insects is bigger than any one person can comprehend.

The thematic crux of The Year of Our War is the immortality of the Circle. Though at first it seems to be handled in a comic book sense, where immortality and blessing are simply means to kill monsters better, it soon becomes apparent that the longevity of the Fourlands' rulers dictates every aspect of their culture. This is explored in what is by far the book's most interesting sub plot, Swallow's quest for immortality on the basis of her musical skills. When she goes up to the emperor, he says:

"'Do you think music requires an immortal guardian, as Lightening controls the skill of archery? Would it better if music was left to change and develop as future people wish?'"

Since its policy makers are immortal, the Fourlands have essentially stagnated. This isn't a Warhammer-esque stagnation, where progress is lost forever, but, as long as the immortals reign over their disciplines, true progress cannot take place. How could a musketeer outperform the god of archery, and, if he could not, how could the invention ever take hold in such a society? The immortals, however, only control the arts of war, and the rest of the society can progress at a standard pace. This leads to the interesting (though occasionally hard to swallow) existence of a society where people wear T-shirts and kill each other with swords.

This stagnation extends to characterization as well as to setting. One of the major complaints that I've seen about The Year of Our War is that the supporting characterizations are shallow. I don't completely agree in all cases, but I'll admit they have a point - I just think the one dimensionality of certain characters is intentional (though, as I've said on here before, interesting thematic decisions don't always translate well to enjoyable reading). When a character becomes immortal, they're frozen at whatever age they happen to be at, arresting their own development:

"'How old have you been for two hundred years, Comet?'

'Twenty-three. But I've grown wiser!'

'Have You? I think it would be a shame to deny the Fourlands the music she would make if she were to grow more mature. When she gains more experience, her music will be so improved that the rest of the world will learn from it.'"

Of course, the members of the Circle don't think that they've been treading water for thousands of years:

"Many [immortals] are jaded and love innovation; some of us, like myself, invent to make our lives easier and to prove we are the best specialists in our various professions. The more confident immortals embrace novelty and would welcome Swallow's continual creation."

While at first convincing, Jant's words soon ring hollow. First of all, the end of the first sentence is very telling: to prove we are the best specialists in our various professions. So, while Jant may pass his time by inventing gliders, you're not going to see Lightening rendering himself obsolete by inventing (or even endorsing) handguns. The older immortals are all trapped in their own pasts. Lightening still squabbles with Mist over territorial disputes forgotten before any living mortal was born; Mist is unwilling to acknowledge Ata's innovations, because something that daring would be unthinkable in the more traditional time that he's a product of.

The Insects, a faceless enemy that endlessly encroaches on the borders of the Fourlands, drive almost every event in the novel, but they're probably the least interesting part of it. They're suitably terrifying off screen, of course, but the Circle's prowess defangs them a tad in direct confrontation. Really, the main problem facing the human armies seems to be a lack of arrows, and, as such, I have a simple plan for victory: all T-shirt factories have hereby been taken over by the state, and they will produce either A. arrows, or B. quivers to hold said arrows. If every archer brings, say, fifteen quivers, instead of the customary four arrows, I'm confident the Insects would cease to be such a big deal.

And then there's the Shift, an altogether different realm in which the rules of reality are totally different, accessed by overdosing on scolopendium. I don't understand how there are so few Fourlanders there, if an overdose is really all that's needed, and if scolopendium is as often abused as Jant's flashbacks would have us believe, but that's a miniscule point. The Shift is a breeding ground for the bizarre, and it would be easy to let it grow whimsical to the point of irrelevance, but creatures like the unsettling Vermiform insure that there're some teeth in the whole affair, and I'm looking forward to learning more about what the hell it is in future volumes.

The Year of Our War is an excellent debut. I've seen a whole host of reviews that have called it a Miéville clone, and I just don't really get that. It's about a self centered character who flies, so alright, I guess that's a superficial similarity to Perdido Street Station. They're both New Weird, but I don't think genre's enough to acquire rip off status. They're both concerned with questions of immortality and an eternal war...oh, wait, no; they're not. Maybe I'm being silly, but I don't know how a book can be a pastiche while exploring wholly different themes. The Year of Our War has got some flaws, some of which are easily excusable and some of which are not, but it makes up for all of them with its tight focus and interesting ideas. If you're interested in New Weird, this is something you need to check out.
11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars lots of potential for a great story but..... Nov. 21 2004
By Dynomoose - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This book tries to take too many directions. The characters and situations are compelling but, just when it's about to hook you, The Year of Our War goes off on another sub-plot.

I would really like to see a more focused look at the world that Steph Swainston has created here. The Year of Our War only gives a teaser of this world.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A new type of fantasy Dec 23 2006
By Larry Ketchersid - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
After a while, one grows tired of elves and orcs and barbarians and the typical fantasy stories. Steph Swainston has invented a new and unique world with none of the normal suspects in it, with great imagination that still leaves a lot to the readers to ponder.

She creates a world with mortals and immortals, where the immortals must earn their place by being the best at what they can do: the best swordsman, the best sailor, the best archer. Immortality is betowed upon them by the Emperor San...where he got the ability to do this is one of the mysteries of the series.

Jant Comet is one of the immortals, called the Messenger because of his unique ability to fly. Because he is the Emperor's Messenger, we get to see the politics of the realm, and even see Jant change a few things.

The Emperor's realm is at war with the Insects, who look like bugs many times the size of humans and who build paper nests out of counqueorer lands. Where the Insects have come from is yet another of the mysteries in the book and series.

Jant is an addict to a substance called Cat. Ms. Swainston's portrayl of Jant's addiction, in this book and the next, is dead on...she must have known or studied addicts quite closely.

Jant's addiction gives him entrance into a parallel world, a world he and we the readers are not sure is real until we explore it further. Then it becomes tied in with the Emperor's world and the Insects.

Ms. Swainston mixes political intrigue (immortals battling each other for position; non-immortals vs. the Emperor; mortals vying to become immortals), war (vividly imagines human vs. insect fighting scenes, shades of Stormship Troopers!), addiction and Jant's journey of self-discovery into an excellent fantasy novel. As an author, what I most admire about the writing is her ability to not tell the reader what is going on (at least for the big stuff) but to let us figure it out. The novel held me in suspense till the end, made we eager for the next (which is equally good).

Highly recommended.
16 of 22 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Overhyped, overblown Feb. 6 2005
By M. Pitcavage - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This is a book which has been much hyped in the SF news literature, and some critics have given it extremely generous praise. I am sorry to say that much of this praise has been far too generous.

It is true that this novel is based on several fascinating conceits: a world being invaded by alien beings who are slowly but inexorably expanding their domain despite all attempts to stop them; the invasion is fought by a group of near gods raised to immortality by an emperor. The novel is told, in first person view, from one of those near-gods; a very flawed and addicted Mercury-like individual.

However, the fantasy land in which these conceits are set is totally unrealized, which means that readers have little investment in what happens to it. Moreover, the vast majority of characters in the novel are little more than names on the page; only two characters are fully realized, and neither one is particularly attractive. Moreover, the novel has in it a strange parallel universe world that is not well explained or fully fit into the setting. It is at best distracting.

I wanted to like this novel quite a bit, but in the end, I found that it lacked what a fantasy novel needs above all else: a verisimilitude of setting and characters that will anchor you to the created world and cause you to care about what happens within it.
13 of 18 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars The Empress Has No Clothes Aug. 19 2004
By Marianne Frye - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Don't be fooled by the hype already surrounding this book. It is being touted as the next big thing in Fantasy. In fact it is a poorly written mess, which leaves you with almost an absolute zero upon completion.

Of course they won't let you rate a book zero stars, but to be fair it did earn the one star. The main character is done extremely well. It is almost as if the book were an exercise to build that one character with things like other characters, plot, dialog and good storytelling a last minute after-thought.

The main character, is a drug addict, former pusher, murderer, outcast half-breed who has learned to survive by being a liar, a whiner and a manipulator. He is also a rapist. He is everything you would not want to spend time with. Yet the author makes him seem human, and at times vulnerable and while not likeable you become interested in spite of yourself.

Unfortunately the rest of the characters are flat, and one dimensional. Each is given 3 names/titles and they are used interchangeably so you are never sure who is who. The dialog is pretty bad and mostly powered by non-sequiters. So not only don't you know who is talking most of the time, you also can't figure out what they are talking about.

The plot is not really fleshed out, it sort of meanders along but you don't really care because all you want is for the book to end. There is a war, then when that isn't really of interest anymore there are internecine rivalries among the warriors, then when that gets old there are flashbacks, and a feud develops between some of the rivals. Through it all the main character just wants to rape the woman of his dreams, again; get drugs and stay high; manipulate his friends; and keep his immortal status at any price.

The story is set in a fantasy land turned rotten, with giant bugs inexplicably taking over the landscape. There is also another fantasy land that is only open to those who overdose on drugs, or those who die of a drug overdose. It starts out very cute and smarmy - like HR Puffen Stuff on acid. Later the author tones it down but the place seems to exist only for the author to show what wonderful and creative ideas she has. It really doesn't have any part of the plot until just before the end of the book when a giant plot element is set in the middle of it. Something so big that not to see it way back when the place was first described would be like somehow not being able to see the Empire State Building when you were standing on the street in front of it. Talk about Deus Ex Machina.

The book has gritty, bloody and very real human moments. It is not traditional fantasy, but just because it avoids the clone settings and plots, the tired cliches and the overused tropes doesn't make it a good book in and of itself. There has to be merit in the work, and there really isn't much here. Perhaps if the author is given a few years to work on developing her skills she will be able to produce a decent read, but this is not it.
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