Fiction Reviews

The Modern World

(2007) Steph Swainson, Gollancz, 14.99, pbk, 325pp, ISBN 978-0-575-0-7007-3

Steph Swainson makes it clear from the outset that this, her third novel, is not your ordinary fantasy. Beginning with a prolonged scene of gut-churning violence, it is pretty obvious that Swainson wants to banish all thoughts of high-fantasy whimsy here - her world, namely the Fourlands, is gritty and gruesome and neither pretty nor refined. The prologue ends with a twist that makes you wonder how the story can even continue; fortunately an explanation is on hand. Comet, the winged messenger of the fifty immortals that make up the Circle, has returned to Slake Cross, a place with painful memories for him. The Circle are convinced that a new dam built by the architect Frost will be enough to halt the progress of invading Insects that threaten the Fourlands. Instead, it turns out to herald an unexpected complication in the war.

There is something of a science fiction slant to Swainson's world. With few of the usual tropes of high fantasy - the only 'magical' element seemingly being the Circle's immortality - The Modern World seems a much more realistic and down-to-Earth affair. With a plot that involves travel between alternate universes, the mating practices of giant insects and the details of dam engineering The Modern World manages to pull together enough hard science to appeal to some SF fans, and possibly even convert some fantasy nay-sayers. Swainson's own background in archaeology shows in some nice little details, in particular a rather dramatic section involving tribal ceremonies that comes across as both accurate and unsettling. She constructs a rich and detailed background too with a clear understanding of history, but much of it does seem extraneous - Lightning's frequent monologues of the history he has experienced over many centuries does detract from the vibrancy of the rest of the novel.

The main focus in the first part of the book is on Lightning's rebellious yet petulant daughter, Cyan, who manages to vanish in the metropolis of Hacilith. Comet promises to track her down and in doing so puts him at odds with his orders. His search takes him back to his misspent childhood and his now-overcome drug addiction, which inevitably leads him to the Shift universe. The second part of the novel, and this does feel like a novel of two halves, sees him return to the Fourlands only to face a new threat to the Circle. If there's an issue with the book, it is that it does not feel like a self-contained novel. While it does not proudly advertise itself as 'volume X of the whatever cycle' it still feels like much of the novel is setting the scene for later. Though Swainson may be building up to something in upcoming novels, I do not think that this is the place for anyone new to Swainson's work to start. It has convinced me to pick up her first book though, so there is plenty in this one novel to keep you hooked for more.

Peter Thorley

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