Rebecca Levene has a track record in writing for television and video games, with a career that includes media tie-in novels, the oddball game Zombies, Run!, and the soap opera Emmerdale. Smiler's Fair is her first epic fantasy novel: the first of a projected four-book series (The Hollow Gods) from Hodder & Stoughton. The publisher has pulled out all the stops in terms of presentation for this first volume, with the title impressed in gold leaf on the book's spine and more gilt in the half-moon that dominates the front cover. It is an eye-catching piece of art: but sadly, the book itself is rather less shiny than its cover.
Smiler's Fair is epic fantasy in a familiar mode: Big Fat Fantasy With Maps. True to form, we see through the eyes of the characters many of the places marked on the sprawling, stylish map as they slog their way though mud, misery, murder, and an array of poor life choices to reach the point where dominoes begin to topple, cities burn, and magic blows up.
It takes a while to get there. Three-quarters of this book is prologue: solipsistic viewpoint characters with little meaningful relationship to any other character (viewpoint or otherwise) wandering through a variety of settings and fucking up their lives in progressively less interesting ways. The final quarter? Is confusion, and—at last!—the beginnings of what might yet be an entertaining story.
One of the worst crimes epic fantasy commits against its readers is also one of its most common. A single volume of a multiple-volume epic is, clearly, not a complete story in itself; yet one expects the individual installments to contain arcs of their own, that reach a kind of narrative resolution while still serving the greater arc of the epic form—much as the separate episodes of a television mini-series have individual narrative resolutions that, taken cumulatively, create and stimulate tensions for the longer arc; or as the acts of a play each serve a visible, intelligible structural role in making it more than the sum of its parts. Frequently, however, we are offered fantasy volumes (voluminous volumes) which make no bones about their lack of regard for structure, that give not even lip-service towards episodic resolution. It's a slipshod and slapdash approach that has contributed to my growing dislike of much that is produced under the rubric of "epic fantasy," and an approach that Smiler's Fair epitomizes.
You've probably gathered that I'm not particularly impressed with Smiler's Fair. To be just, I can understand—barely—why other readers have responded with rather more enthusiasm. It has an intriguing conceit, and one that, had the book been more interested in exploring its social and cultural consequences, could have been more than merely intriguing. Levene's world is a world of nomads, where the most settled communities (and the wealthiest, and the most powerful) live in "shipforts" that are drawn around the shores of lakes, villages may move their permanent structures around on rails, and the majority of people live in tents. A world where the titular Smiler's Fair is, to all intents and purposes, a moveable city borne on the backs of wagons and beasts of burden, a city that takes a daily roll-call of inhabitants and visitors every time it stops and moves on when the first name is missing from the roll. This peripatetic mode of life is on account of the worm men, creatures who live in the earth and cannot bear the touch of sunlight, who kill all they encounter—and who incidentally make shaft mining a very hazardous way to earn a living. The worm men are the servants of Yron the moon god, cast down after a long-ago war between Mizhara the sun goddess and Yron, which Yron lost rather badly: the intrusion of the mythical into the quotidian which we are so accustomed to in fantasy, here made predatory and strange.
But Levene is not particularly interested in doing anything new or unexpected with her book's conceits. It doesn't seem to matter particularly that no one lives in a fixed dwelling. The setting is merely scenery, populated with lords and raiding bands and all the traditional paraphernalia—but flat, two-dimensional, holding no emotional or intellectual significance. Occasionally the narrative stops to exposit at the reader, but otherwise all the places on the map blur together.
Nor is Levene, it seems, particularly interested in characterization. Onto the muddy canvas of Smiler's Fair straggle Nethmi, orphaned daughter of a nobleman, who is sold into an uncomfortable political marriage and commits accidental murder to get out of it (even her violence is passive and subject to a man's direction); Eric, this world's equivalent of a rent boy, who falls in love with one of his customers and finds himself sold to an odd cult of not-quite-human women in service to the sun goddess; Marvan, a rather aimless serial killer who cannot master his compulsion sufficiently to avoid shitting in his own nest; Dae Hyo, drunkard, mercenary, and last survivor of a nomadic tribe, who staggers from fight to fight changing his mind about whether or not he cares enough to stop drinking until he meets Krish, a young goatherd who killed the man he thought was his father and now finds himself pursued by the forces of an entire kingdom.
For Krish is the moon god reborn into the body of a king's son—a king's son the king marked for death because of a prophecy, and who escaped death only because of his mother's self-sacrifice. Someone whom everyone rather expects to change the world, but who spends most of the book in miserable and solitary flight.
Mind you, "miserable," "uncomfortable," and "solitary" (emotionally if not physically; often both) describe most of the characters in Smiler's Fair for most of the novel. "Aimless" and "undirected" might do as well: some books start off with many of their significant characters already connected in some manner, or set on patterns such that we may see potential connections approaching, and as those connections and patterns divide and complicate and recombine the story grows in complexity and tension. But here we have particles moving on separate paths in what seems all but a vacuum, characters who don't have meaningful interactions with other characters: where any narrative drive and tension comes by chance encounter, rather than from any interior feeling or development.
The characters lack . . . something, though I'm not quite sure I can put my finger on precisely what. I would call it interiority, perhaps, or agency, yet neither exactly fits. Individuality? Charm? (Charm they lack, certainly.) From a surface description they should be interesting, if not compelling—but instead it's as though Levene had to set the bodies in motion and keep them moving for a long while before they began to develop personality. In principio creavit, and terra autem erat inanis et vacua: there are definite downsides to not beginning in medias res.
I came to Smiler's Fair wanting to like it. Hoping to like it. When epic fantasy brings its A-game, it can be among the most startling, striking, moving forms of literature there is. But there's precious little moving about this novel, nor striking, nor affecting: I'm baffled as to the appeal of three-quarters of it, frustrated with the final fourth, and dissatisfied with the whole.
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