Swainston’s book The Modern World blew me away. The sheer quality and originality of her world-building, characterisation and story arc was impressive and memorable. I loved Jant, the immortal, drug-taking Messenger and the New Weird mash-up of aspects of modern life in a medieval setting. So, when I came across this offering, I scooped it off the shelf with joy in my heart. But would it fulfil my expectations?
Awian exiles are building a settlement in the Darkling mountains, where the Rhydanne hunt. Their clash of interests soon leads to bloodshed in the snows and Shira Dellin, a Rhydanne huntress, appeals to the immortal Circle for justice. The Emperor sends Jant, half-Rhydanne, half Awain, and all-confidence to mediate…
Above the Snowline is a prequel to the previous three books, and here we see a far younger, more callow Jant sent out on his first vital mission. A Jant before the drug-taking and his marriage – and before he has faced up to his difficult heritage. The other major difference is that though the gritted struggle with the Insects is occasionally mentioned, it isn’t at the forefront of the story. The engine that drives this narrative is the collision of cultures between the solitary Rhydanne hunters that occupy an apparently empty territory – and the sudden influx of Raven and his followers after their attempt to dislodge the Awain King – Raven’s brother – fails. As they struggle to survive on the forested uplands, their trapping, tree-felling and building frightens away the native wildlife – and the Rhydanne hunting pairs find themselves facing starvation.
While we get a sense of Jant, his voice is far more muted in this book, as the exploration of the worsening situation is told through multiple first person viewpoints – so we learn of Dellin’s essential wildness, courage and conviction, along with Raven’s bitter sense of injustice that he is cheated of the throne by being the brother born a few moments later than his twin.
Swainston’s strong storytelling gives us insights into all the major protagonists – so as the situation tips into spiralling violence, we find ourselves sympathising with both the Rhydanne and Raven, who has been banished to the bleak mountains for the rest of his life. Unlike so much Fantasy, Swainston won’t allow us the easy option of thoroughly hating the baaad villain, as the heroine, Dellin, commits a terrible crime. While we learn that Raven is a cultured, highly intelligent man, who has a vision for the Awain nation – and would probably make a better king than his less thoughtful brother. His work ethic and concern for the welfare of his followers is certainly admirable, if disastrous for the ecology of the area.
As ever with Swainston, the story moves along at a fair clip without being unduly slowed by her superb descriptions. The bleak landscape is wonderfully portrayed and Raven’s fort is depicted with cinematic precision – as is the local hostelry and trading post ‘The Frozen Hound’ and its remarkable host Ouzel, one of my favourite characters.
The ending is suitably dramatic and satisfactorily brings the plot to a conclusion, which is important, given that this slice of the Fourlands is not going to feature again. As you may have gathered, I enjoyed this book every bit as much as Swainston’s earlier offering. Though this is despite another truly dreary cover that doesn’t begin to reflect the sparkling freshness of Swainston’s writing – or the very unfriendly font that had my poor middle-aged eyes aching. Those caveats aside, I recommend that you track down Swainston’s wonderful series – she really is in a class of her own.