In an interview at UKSF Booknews, Steph Swainston describes Dangerous Offspring, the latest installment in her Castle series as "still a complete novel in its own right and is intended to be read on its own—so new readers shouldn't be afraid of starting here."
Well, I'm not so sure. Alas, I have not read the previous novels, The Year of Our War and No Present Like Time (though I'm intrigued enough by this one to add them to my tottering TBR pile). It's true that this a standalone in the sense that there is a narrative arc that is resolved at the end. Nor, lacking any knowledge about the previous novels, should you get lost about what is going on. That said, I think Dangerous Offspring is written more for existing fans. The two plot lines are predictable—a new technology will backfire, calling on its creator to an heroic sacrifice to make things right; meanwhile, a spoiled and immature adolescent makes a bid for independence and power against her immortal father that follows the adage of "be careful what you wish for." I don't think plot is all that important here; rather, it is to provide back stories for various key characters. While this is no doubt of interest to those already familiar with the world of the Fourlands and the war with the Insects, someone like myself just coming into it is a little under whelmed.
The story is told, with two curious exceptions, by Jant Comet, the winged "delivery boy" of the Circle, a sort of god-like collective who remain in their roles unless and until they are successfully challenged by an usurper. If the usurper can demonstrate better capabilities—such as shooting an arrow more accurately than the immortal archer—then they exchange positions, the loser returning to mortality in a process that is somehow or another controlled by the Emperor San.
Jant is a recovering drug addict and he's got his eye on Cyan, the rebellious daughter of a Circle fellow, Lightning. He's also married, though I guess immortality might excuse the need for a little variety now and then. But a lecherous eye on a petulant brat verges on cradle robbing. While Swainston has said that it is her intention to create full-blown characters complete with warts, and avoid the cliché of good guys versus the forces of evil that pervades hack fantasy (the one purely "good" character would seem to be Lightning), I found it difficult to care about Jant one way or the other. Again, this may be because I haven't read the previous books in the series.
However, Swainston has also said that it was her specific intent to focus less on the characters than the mechanics of battle. Indeed, there was more here about Fourlands military practice and organization than I really cared to know. In addition, there's extensive description of battle scenes. If Swainston's purpose is to portray the brutality of hand-to-hand combat with medieval-grade weapons—something that at times gets left out in conventional fantasy—she's succeeded. Perhaps too well. My eyes tend to glaze over such stuff as:
Lourie's diminishing band were standing in a circle, completely surrounded, as, hundreds of meters away, the left wing began to wheel ponderously towards him. Tornado's men were fighting already in fresh swarms of nymphs. The right wing was still halted in confusion, not yet in contact with the larvae: cavalry rode up and down trying to see what was going on even while the ranks nearest the slaughter were peeling away and breaking up. The ground was heaving as larvae, attracted by the blood, funneled into our center from the left, from the lake... (p. 257)
There's a war on, but I'm less interested in troop movements than how people feel about this. I just don't care what the flanks are doing. (This is probably why I don't like chess, either.) Okay, the ground is heaving with larvae, great visual, but it's just a special effect. I'm more interested in the up-close-and-personal than in the widescreen pan. To be fair, the description of gore oozing from Insect and humans alike is disturbing, as it should be, but after a while I'd like to get back to the story, which should be something more than who gouged whom.
Another distraction is the use of modern aphorisms in a supposed alternate fantasy reality. This is a fine line to walk, and some authors manage to pull it off. (Neal Stephenson, for example, pointedly has historical characters speak in modern vernacular, and somehow it works.) I'm not sure Swainston successfully navigates this challenge. Having a character respond, "Whatever" is a little jarring, but, okay, maybe it does bring on a smile. But when an immortal woman complains about a "glass ceiling" in the medical profession, it's not just that it doesn't strike me as funny. I don't understand the point of it. This character doesn't feel she is being taken seriously—but, so what? She is a minor character and the idea of sex discrimination is just dropped in without any further development in the larger plot (though, again, this may relate to events in the previous books). Is "glass ceiling" meant as a kind of joke, or a wink-wink that even in fantasyland women face discrimination? Maybe, but in such an offhand context, it strikes me as clumsy. Then again, I'm a guy, so maybe I'm being overly sensitive.
The sex scenes also left me a little, well, unexcited. A flashback in which Jant recalls his humiliation by the randy Queen Eleonora is okay, but I have a hard time suspending disbelief when a gore-covered Jant comes to rescue Cyan from the invading insects and, more as an afterthought than anything else, performs impassioned cunningulus. Sure this is fantasy, and even in mainstream fiction people behave not as people but as symbols. But these are two consenting adults (despite the differences in age and experience), so it isn't a metaphor about violence and rape, much less actual violence and rape. Sexual attraction and drive does a lot of strange things and results in irrational behavior, but you'd think hygiene might damper some spirits. For me, this was one of those, "Oh, c'mon" moments that characterize most witless romantic comedy movies.
Swainston, however, is far from witless. My reservations about the circumstances of the scene notwithstanding, it was clever and funny that when the "earth moves" for Cyan in experiencing her first climax, the earth beneath them literally moves as well.
Such elements may also be evidence of the author trying to be campy, but in more subtle ways. The Insects are the bad guys, a classic motif of 1950s atomic age horror movies of giant tarantulas going on the rampage against attractive blonde teenagers. And then there's the alternate Rudy Rucker-like universe called the Shift that's populated by worm-like omniscient creatures. Like a lot of Rucker's work, it borders on the silly. The problem with subtle camp, however, is that it is a contradiction in terms. And Swainston does seem to have more serious intentions here.
The key is in the title. Actually, two titles. This story is a depiction of a world on the brink of disaster, facing an unforeseen devastating enemy. No, I don't think it is a take on 9/11—I think it is a reflection the state of the modern world. So The Modern World, the title of the UK edition (and, presumably, the author's preferred title), seems apt. Also key to modernity is the realization that the old myths no longer hold. And that technology creates as many problems as it solves. Both of these realisations are crucial to the novel.
There are hints that the emperor may not be as all-powerful as he seems and the nature of the universe is also placed in question. Much as the Renaissance started to view humanity perhaps ahead of God, which has had reverberations throughout modernity, there are indications that the world of the Fourlands is not the center of the universe, and is somehow part of the Shift, which comprises multiple alternate worlds, all of which are threatened by the Insects.
The American title, Dangerous Offspring, is a literal reference to the children of the Insects, which are in many respects more dangerous than their parents. However, their birth is abetted as an unforeseen byproduct of human intervention to alter nature. The negative effects of technology and the rational person who, pursuing it, becomes a mad scientist are, of course, a guiding notion of science fiction.
This is what makes the novel, whatever reservations I've expressed, more than your standard "let's see what kind of world we can imagine and let the good and evil guys go at it" and, ultimately, worth reading. Perhaps over the longer landscape of the entire series, this is intended as a hint of what may became a compelling part of the plotline. No doubt more is to be revealed. And for those of us who entered at a late point, it might be best to go back and start at the beginning to fully grasp what is going on here.