Review of The Modern World – Book 3 of The Castle series by Steph Swainston

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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 modernworldthat 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. 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…
10/10

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