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Above the Snowline cover


In retrospect, it's clear that The Year of Our War (2004) is a reinvigoration of core commercial fantasy as much or more than it is a development of the New Weird. Of course, to say this is to invite argument on several fronts, so I'd better define my terms. In an attempt to forestall another round of the interminable debate about what New Weird was, is, and might be, I'm going to accept the usage of New Weird specifically as a type of fantasy (so excluding such authors of the original "10 suggested New Weird and proto-NW texts" [1] as Alastair Reynolds, for instance) that emphasises the, well, weird (thus downplaying the importance ascribed to politics in the original messageboard discussions). Meanwhile, I'm going to propose that in the half-decade since Steph Swainston's first novel appeared, there's been an increasing amount of work—by the likes of Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, and Richard Morgan, and as collected in the recent Lou Anders/Jonathan Strahan-edited anthology Swords and Dark Magic—that can be considered as what Martin Lewis has called "Third Wave fantasy," blending the sweep of epic fantasy with the intense personal stakes and moral compromises of sword and sorcery. To be clear, there certainly is weird in Swainston's books—most obviously in the Lewis-Carroll-by-way-of-H.R.-Giger fantasy-within-a-fantasy of the Shift—but increasingly it seems to me less central than a "New Weird" tag might imply. Much more important is a quality Swainston shares with the other writers I mentioned, of challenging the conventionally historicised nature of fantasy settings; for example, juxtaposing an idiom or thought pattern we think of as modern with a social order we think of as hundreds of years out of date.

What marks Swainston's work out is that her setting, the small continent known as the Fourlands, is modern from the ground up. Her characters wear jeans and sloganned T-shirts, and find that old haunts have been redeveloped into trendy wine bars; and her central protagonist, the winged immortal 23-year-old Comet Jant Shira, has a deliberately contemporary drug addiction, with talk of dealers and shooting up, and snorting powder through rolled-up five pound notes. Swainston's writing tends to be textually playful, as well, with her narratives typically interrupted by found documents such as newspaper articles (including some from reporters embedded with front-line military units), or different formats, such as a transcripts or a series of timestamped updates (this latter lasting until Jant gets fed up and yells at one of his companions to put their fucking watch away). And yet the Fourlands is ruled by an Emperor able to offer eternal life to a Circle of heroes, each with a particular talent, that he sustains to defend the land against an implacable invasion of Insects; and yet the technology level, although developing, is such that those heroes can carry titles such as Archer, Swordsman, and Strongman. (Jant is the Messenger; it's noticeable that the only conceivable threat to his position is communications technology.) Put another way, if one characteristic of Third Wave fantasy is that it asks us to consider what we mean by "modern", and why we expect a secondary world to reflect real history, what the first-glance hotch-potchness of Swainston's creation does is to foreground that question: to ask it more forcefully than just about anyone else.

This goes some way to explaining why The Year of Our War itself remains so impressively fresh and energetic: confident in its language, ambitious in its structure and plot, and unafraid to be both funny and dramatic. It's no surprise that it won the William L. Crawford Award for best first fantasy book. At just under 300 pages, it is epic fantasy that has been flensed—or, as Farah Mendlesohn put it in her review [2], epic fantasy that has skipped over the first volume, and started in the thick of it: Swainston opens with a battle, pauses for a handful of character set-pieces, then wraps everything up in a grand finale. (In fact, Mendlesohn anticipates much of what I've just said above, noting that The Year of Our War is "about as solidly grounded in genre as it is possible to get," and that it reinvigorates established storyforms as much as it creates anything new.) Its characters are vividly defined, and the Greek God-style petty squabbles of the Circle are consistently entertaining, but the novel's greatest strength is its partiality: it conveys subtantial depth through specific details that imply a world. The novel is so exhilaratingly crammed, in fact—at times seeming determined to touch on every major aspect and issue of Swainston's world—and such an effective calling card that in its immediate aftermath it can be hard to see where Swainston might go next, even as you realise you're already irretrievably hooked.

The answer can at first seem a little disappointing. No Present Like Time (2005) and The Modern World (2007) start filling in the gaps that made their predecessor so effective. More kindly, they explore and deepen the issues The Year of Our War raised. But No Present Like Time, in particular, has the air of being Just Another Adventure Of The Circle; it opens far more conventionally, with Jant giving readers a leisurely tour of the Emperor's Castle before receiving his briefing on the novel's plot. A select few—including a new member of the Circle, whose ascension is framed as a combination of mortal hunger, and frustration at the barriers set by his class in normal life—are being sent to investigate an island whose inhabitants don't seem to know about the Empire or about Insects. By the time news of the island has sparked a full-scale revolt in the Fourlands, however, it's apparent that No Present Like Time is less interested in the utopian nature of Tris—the inhabitants of which have a particularly effective form of democracy—and more in the opportunity if offers to demonstrate how and why the Emperor's rule has worked for two thousand years, and in particular, how so much of his success is tied up with his immortality and his ability to, per the novel's title, gift that state to others. Much is made here of the contradictory nature of the Circle: that it's an authoritarian system whose goals are, thanks to the war, necessarily meritocratic. They really do want the very best Archer, after all. At the same time, Swainston is rounding out her portrayal of Jant's addictive personality: it's not just drugs, it seems, he's addicted to flying, to his wife, to information, to life itself.

If the problem with No present Like Time is that it can feel a bit too much like a sourcebook, on its own terms it's a perfectly fine novel. It never really achieves the intensity of The Year of Our War, but it's not trying to; and backgrounding the Insect war having so emphasized it in the first novel is a liberating move. The introduction of Tris emphasises that the Fourlands is not a static creation—that the backdrop to Swainston's tales is changing even as the immortal characters remain constant, in a way that actually justifies multiple novels. The affect of the series is made as important as the affect of each individual volume.

Still, it's welcome to find that The Modern World accelerates the process. Its narrative engine is a seemingly sure-fire plan to reclaim land from the Insects—by redirecting river flows to drown them—that turns out to create the circumstances for the Fourlands' possible destruction. Before long the entire continent is mobilized, with the Emperor himself joining the entire Circle at the front for an epic showdown. Like No Present Like Time, The Modern World is at first glance somewhat broken-backed, with a second half stronger than its first; but even more than its predecessor, when you get to it the second half is quite something. Swainston seizes the opportunity to show off how brilliantly the various parts of her creation work together, both narratively and technically—not for nothing is her protagonist's job to be a good observer; Swainston's battle scenes are some of the most visceral and visual I've ever encountered—and then upends the whole thing by having her characters confront the truth that the Fourlands is, as Jant puts it, just another Shift world, "one of thousands in the continuum . . . as strange and beautiful as the rest." Such a development creates certain expectations of the next book—given the example of Tris, after all, it's probably not long before this knowledge, which we're told the Emperor fears will destabilise the order of the Fourlands, leaks out to the general populace; and how far might Jant travel through the Shift?—and even with a slight unease at Jant's increasing centrality in Swainston's creation, heightens the anticipation of the next fix. Which has now arrived.


Two Rhydanne hunters run down the side of a mountain, a bonded pair. They are to humans "as cheetahs are to alley cats" (p. 2), fast, deadly, and in their element in the harsh landscape of contrasts and edges. Across the glacier, they spy a scar, a place where trees should have been. It is the clumsy start of an Awian settlement, and an intrusion into Rhydanne territory. The hunters are horrified to see how much has been built and cleared since they last came this way; but on the upside, there are easy pickings, pens full of tempting animals. "They'll probably be drinking if they've trapped this much food", one observes. "Then let's take some," suggests the other (p. 6). They do. They release some horses, and set off on the hunt, exultant in their ability once more. A single, perfectly aimed spear throw is all it takes to bring one down on the rocks. A clean kill. "She loved taking an animal's movement and stilling it" (p. 8). The hunters will eat well tonight and, if they can cache the meat, on other nights as well—but they have been seen. Suddenly they are the prey, and one of them is dead: sticks with feathers on the end sprout from his chest. The survivor doesn't understand; is angry; is in no position to fight back. She runs.

Two differences between Above the Snowline and the earlier Castle novels are particularly noticeable. The first is signalled before you turn the first page: Above the Snowline is a prequel, taking place over a century before The Year of Our War. This is perhaps a little discouraging, not only because The Modern World created such anticipation for the future of the Fourlands. In depictions of created worlds, there almost always comes a point at which deepening and exploring comes to feel like pedantic completism. No Present Like Time and The Modern World got around this by evolving the Fourlands, but we don't get a comprehensive view of this earlier model, and what we do see doesn't seem that different to the status quo at the start of The Year of Our War. And since it's not as though the earlier novels have neglected Jant's past—flashbacks have depicted his youth as an outsider in the mountain wilderness of Darkling, and later as a drug dealer in the sprawling metropolis of Hacilith; how as a young immortal he courted and won his wife, Tern; memorable battles and encounters— it's not immediately clear what a new old story has to add.

The second difference, which becomes apparent when you start reading, answers that question. The scene described above, and much of the rest of the novel, is not narrated by Jant. To this point, it has been Jant's irresponsible, irreverent voice that has defined the Fourlands. There have been short contributions from other voices—extracts from the new Swordsman's diary in No Present Like Time, letters written by the Doctor Rayne in The Modern World—but everything has been bent around Jant, and arguably for a given reader the first three novels will stand or fall according to whether they consider Jant's Elric-like self-destructive personality entertaining or tiresome. Above the Snowline is the first of Swainston's novels that can truly claim to offer multiple perspectives; in addition to Jant's narration, there are chapters told by his mentor, Lightning; by an exiled prince, Raven; by a trader, Ouzel; by a house steward, Snipe; and by assorted one-off characters, each with a carefully distinct voice.

So that's another way of keeping the Fourlands fresh, and welcome as a source of added texture for what is, compared to the previous books, a small story about a territorial dispute between two of the Fourlands' nations. There is minimal involvement from the wider Circle (though that is a complaint that could be levelled at all four books; even The Modern World only showed about a quarter of the immortals on-screen), and there are no battles against Insects. For the first time, there is no map in the front of the book, and for the first time the action is confined to a small enough area that a map is not needed. Shira Dellin, the surviving hunter we met above, makes her way to the Castle to request the help of the Emperor. The Awians, she charges, are forcing the Rhydanne from the land where they have always run. They are attempting to control the mountain. In the face of reluctance from some of his Circle—the Rhydanne are seen as a strange, confusing people, and perhaps more damagingly, not useful in the ongoing Insect war—the Emperor sends Jant to mediate, to define the border or arrange acceptable compensation. Inevitably, this turns out to be a more complicated job than it appears. The Awians haven't built a settlement so much as a fortress, and the effects on the Rhydanne in the area have been accidental, at least to start with: rather, Prince Raven is plotting a grab for his kingdom's throne.

Transparently, this situation is designed to confront this younger Jant with the meaning of his heritage. We know from previous books that he is a half-breed, uniquely able to fly thanks to the combination of slender Rhydanne physique and Awian wings; but here, he has renounced the former in favour of the latter. As he says to Lightning, just after Shira Dellin's arrival at the Castle: "Don't compare me with . . . that thing. I'm civilised" (p. 19). This is Jant before his marriage, before the drugs; a more misogynistic version of the character we know, less at ease with himself. (A point underscored by others' views of him.) Since we're told the negotiation is Jant's first assignment of any real substance, within the novel we might understand that this is one of San's ploys, an attempt to force his callow messenger to grow up. There is something curiously innocent about this Comet: as he sets out with Shira Dellin, his sense of anticipation, even enthusiasm, is palpable. All of which means it's no surprise that the smart, capable, ferocious Rhydanne woman comes to fascinate him. Not only is she a reminder of his past, she is utterly unlike the prostitutes and groupies who make up the bulk of his female companionship.

It's worth asking why, given the novel's structure, we don't ever get the unfiltered viewpoint of Shira Dellin—or of any pure Rhydanne. It's a choice with some interesting consequences. The Awians get several viewpoint characters, and are in a sense Above the Snowline's default; the Rhydanne are the aliens. Yet we're told several times that it's the Rhydanne who are descended from humans—with various physiological and metabolic adaptations arising from generations of separation—whereas the winged Awians are of separate origin. It's a subtle way to nag at our sympathies. Still, there's a sense in which—Swainston having in an earlier novel told us that Rhydanne society is "a contradiction in terms"—an insider view seems urgently needed, to convey what such a relentlessly individualistic people might value. Absent more context, some of Shira Dellin's tirades against flatlanders "sick with greed" (p. 62) lack weight.

The context, it turns out, comes from a loving description of the Rhydanne homeland, the mountains of Darkling, the wilderness of the Fourlands. Much of the first third of the novel is given over to Jant's expressive descriptions of his journey with Shira Dellin through that chill chiaroscuro landscape:

The stream sucked the hillside smoothly down into the gorge [ . . . ] We were in a bizarre landscape of naked, angular rock with only the smallest rowan trees at the foot of the cliffs. Enormous, dark grey boulders surrounded us, almost entirely covered with green lichen. Everything was either grey or pale green, as if seen through coloured glass. (p. 71)

That first "green" is perhaps unnecessary, but the sucking stream is a nicely tangible and efficient image, complicated by the coloured glass: the effect is one of stark, strange beauty. Immersed in it, Jant gradually comes to understand what the land means to Rhydanne—"The mountains themselves talk to her like friends. No wonder the solitary Rhydanne are incapable of loneliness" (76)—and, eventually, how much it still means to him. It is through Jant's anger that we appreciate how much of a violation the Awian assumption that the land they arrived at was empty and unnamed really is. The Rhydanne are a people with no concept of the ownership of a place; land belongs to itself. So it's Darkling that is threatened, as much as the Rhydanne; the two are intertwined. Shira Dellin's initial complaint that the Awians seek to corral the mountain acquires more force as the novel develops, and her ultimate decision to adopt the posture of ownership for the sake of the land is a delicately handled tragedy.

So Above the Snowline is an honourable entry into the long tradition of speculative culture-clash narratives, executed with elan and nuance, and in particular there's something to be said for the way in which it refuses to normalise the Rhydanne, and only allows us to appreciate their difference. But the template narrative is familiar enough that its primary interest, I think, is as a Steph Swainston novel. Above the Snowline is, by some way, Swainston's least epic tale, which is another way of saying that it confirms the Fourlands as a setting flexible enough to play host to many different kinds of story. And while I hesitate to call it Swainston's best-structured work—the lacunae and blurts of the earlier books have always felt entirely deliberate to me, and effective—it is perhaps the most balanced novel she's produced. Perhaps its personal, intrigue-driven nature also means that it falls more clearly within the boundaries of the Third Wave than anything else she's written. It's certainly less weird; in the absence of the drugs, there is for the first time no visit to the Shift in this novel: here, the Fourlands is all there is. But if Above the Snowline is less driven by a sense of exhilarating unpredictability than the earlier books, there's still plenty that sparkles. There's no danger of forgetting that you're reading one of the most stimulating of contemporary fantasy writers.

[1] China Mieville, "10 suggested New Weird and proto-NW texts". Locus 2003;51(6):8

[2] Farah Mendlesohn, review of The Year of Our War by Steph Swainston. Vector 2004;236(July/August):33

Niall Harrison is an independent critic based in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. He is a former editor of Strange Horizons, and his writing has also appeared in The New York Review of Science FictionFoundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, The Los Angeles Review of Books and others. He has been a judge for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and a Guest of Honor at the 2023 British National Science Fiction Convention. His collection All These Worlds: Reviews and Essays is available from Briardene Books.
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