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No Present Like Time cover

No Present Like Time revisits the universe of Steph Swainston's debut novel, The Year of Our War. A circle of immortals surrounds the Emperor of the Fourlands, united in their aim to defend against the enemies of the realm. The emperor creates immortals out of men and women who possess the highest attainment of a skill or ability. Each one is unique: one is the best swordsman, one the best archer, one the best mariner, one the strongest, one the fleetest, and so forth. The circle of immortals is not stable, however: anyone can challenge an immortal and try to take his place in the Circle. If the challenger defeats the incumbent, he becomes the immortal, and the loser becomes mortal again.

It is during one of these challenges that No Present Like Time opens. The Swordsman has been challenged. Under the gaze of the Emperor San and the gathered immortals, the two men duel: one fights for the coveted prize of a place in the Circle and immortality; the other struggles not to lose it. Skillfully narrated to show the desperation and exhaustion of the combatants as well as the reaction of the spectators, the duel serves to introduce the narrator/protagonist, the immortal Jant, as he arrives in time to see the climax. The duel's outcome creates the novel's primary antagonist—the defeated Swordsman who, stripped of his place and his immortality, will raise a rebellion later in the story.

Other bits of the plot are subsequently introduced: the announced discovery of a new land that lies across the sea from the Fourlands, which the Emperor wants to establish as part of his domain, and Jant's suspicion that his wife is having an affair with another immortal, triggering his relapse into addiction to the drug Cat. And ever in the background is the ceaseless struggle against the Insects, the horde of unthinking but hostile creatures that are overrunning and destroying civilization.

Jant is sent with several other immortals on a voyage to the new land. On board ship they carry a captive Insect in order to convince the island's inhabitants of the necessity of joining the empire (they know that the island has not yet been invaded and that its citizens believe the creatures to be mere legend). When they arrive at their destination, however, the Insect escapes, killing a number of said citizens in the process, and turning the island's Senate against the Immortals' cause, leaving them to return empty-handed.

No Present Like Time rewards readers with some wonderful invention, and some fantastic beings and places. There is the Shift, the strange, other-dimensional place where Jant finds himself when he overdoses on Cat, where sentient, scholarly sharks can take on human form and mingle, converse, and drive fast cars; and there are the horrific Paperlands, an alien and barren landscape created by the Insects.

Against the pleasure of such creations must be balanced a serious defect: the novel's lack of dramatic impetus. The story has no discernable goal or direction until well past the halfway mark, and Jant himself has no goal other than to carry out the Emperor's directives. The subplot of Jant's struggle with his wife's infidelity fails to generate much interest, as his wife has little presence in the novel. The reader is asked to continue following the story without the pull of suspense, without the need to find out whether a loved or fascinating character will succeed or fail. Some readers, wondering if a goal is ever going to be revealed, might well find it an uphill climb simply to continue reading.

For those who do make it to the conclusion, there is a further reward: some excellent action and an innovative and spectacular maneuver by Jant that is quite satisfying. No Present Like Time won't shake you, or stir pity or terror; it will, however, provide some hours of entertainment in strange lands.

Donna Royston lives and writes in Fairfax, Virginia. Fantasy, with its grand adventure and themes, is her literary love. She has written a novel, The Unmaking, which is in search of a publisher.



Donna Royston (donna.royston@gmail.com) lives and writes in Virginia. Her short story "The First Censor's Statement" is online at The Copperfield Review.
Current Issue
30 Jan 2023

In January 2022, the reviews department at Strange Horizons, led at the time by Maureen Kincaid Speller, published our first special issue with a focus on SF criticism. We were incredibly proud of this issue, and heartened by how many people seemed to feel, with us, that criticism of the kind we publish was important; that it was creative, transformative, worthwhile. We’d been editing the reviews section for a few years at this point, and the process of putting together this special, and the reception it got, felt like a kind of renewal—a reminder of why we cared so much.
It is probably impossible to understand how transformative all of this could be unless you have actually been on the receiving end.
Some of our reviewers offer recollections of Maureen Kincaid Speller.
When I first told Maureen Kincaid Speller that A Closed and Common Orbit was among my favourite current works of science fiction she did not agree with me. Five years later, I'm trying to work out how I came to that perspective myself.
Cloud Atlas can be expressed as ABC[P]YZY[P]CBA. The Actual Star , however, would be depicted as A[P]ZA[P]ZA[P]Z (and so on).
a ghostly airship / sorting and discarding to a pattern that isn’t available to those who are part of it / now attempting to deal with the utterly unknowable
Most likely you’d have questioned the premise, / done it well and kindly then moved on
In this special episode of Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast, reviews editors Aisha Subramanian and Dan Hartland introduce audio from a 2018 recording for Jonah Sutton-Morse’s podcast Cabbages and Kings which included Maureen Kincaid Speller discussing with Aisha and Jonah three books: Everfair by Nisi Shawl, Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan, and The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar.
Criticism was equally an extension of Maureen’s generosity. She not only made space for the text, listening and responding to its own otherness, but she also made space for her readers. Each review was an invitation, a gift to inquire further, to think more deeply and more sensitively about what it is we do when we read.
In the vast traditions that inspire SF worldbuilding, what will be reclaimed and reinvented, and what will be discarded? How do narratives on the periphery speak to and interact with each other in their local contexts, rather than in opposition to the dominant structures of white Western hegemonic culture? What dynamics and possibilities are revealed in the repositioning of these narratives?
Tuesday: Genre Fiction: The Roaring Years by Peter Nicholls 
Wednesday: HellSans by Ever Dundas 
Thursday: Everything for Everyone: An Oral History of the New York Commune, 2052-2072 by M. E. O'Brien and Eman Abdelhadi 
Friday: House of the Dragon Season One 
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Welcome, fellow walkers of the jianghu.
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Issue 28 Nov 2022
By: RiverFlow
Translated by: Emily Jin
Issue 21 Nov 2022
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