Steph Swainston’s debut novel The Year of Our War was published in 2004 and introduces readers to the Fourlands, a world inhabited by three races of humanoids: the Awaians, a winged race; the Rhydannes, a small cat-like race from the mountains, and the regular old humans. A fourth race, the Insects, has taken over the northern portion of the continent and continues to push south, destroying towns and turning them into Paperlands. The novel follows Jant Shira, a Rhydanne-Awaian hybrid whose light body and wings allow him to fly. Jant is a member of the Circle, a group of immortals ruled by Emperor San and charged with protecting the Fourlands. These immortals do not age or die from natural causes, though they can be killed in battle, extreme weather, etc. Jant is the Messenger of the Emperor, called “Comet,” and is addicted to a drug that allows him to access another world called the Shift. Jant finds himself embroiled in the internal intrigue of the Circle while the Insects sweep across the continent and the Emperor threatens to revoke his immortality if Jant can’t provide some answers.
Jant is one of the most interesting first-person narrators I’ve encountered in some time. I spent a lot of time feeling that he was really pathetic: his addiction makes him a weak link in the Circle, his desire to please leads to indecisiveness, and it’s hard to take him seriously when he tries to give orders. At the same time, he’s found himself surrounded by people who discount him due to his age (he was only inducted into the Circle around 200 years previously) or his weird tales of the Shift (which no one but an immortal can access without dying). He often finds his multiple loyalties conflicting as his personal life intersects with his official duties as Messenger. Despite his ability to fly and his status as one of the immortals, Jant has very little control over his own life, and his attempts to direct affairs are always usurped by the louder or the more insistent. This was perhaps one of the reasons I liked Jant as much as I did; he was frequently quite smart, but just as frequently not heard.
My favorite part of this novel is the way it plays with chronotopic disruption. The notion of the chronotope comes from the work of Mikhail Bakhtin and is further theorized Michael Holquist. (Honestly, most of what I know about chronotopes is from talking to my boyfriend who knows a lot.) The idea of the chronotope is a narrative time and place that we expect together. For example, for a Wild West story, you expect a particular a particular place — the American West — and a particular time — the 1800s. With that particular time/place we expect certain things: six-shooters, saloons, horses, prostitutes with hearts of gold, train barons, etc. Likewise, we expect certain things out of cyberpunk stories: a futuristic, urban setting where the lines between biology and technology blur and an evil corporation is usually behind everything. Narratives can also combine chronotopes, so we get things like Joss Whedon’s Firefly, which combines space opera and Wild West chronotopes, without necessarily disrupting our expectations and, in fact, calling our attention to the similarities between the two. Swainston disrupts the fantasy chronotopes in The Year of Our War in less pervasive ways; in most ways, The Year of Our War seems like a fairly straightforward fantasy world: archers, troops on horseback, ladies and lords ruling over fiefdoms and swearing fealty to a king (or not), a magical world beyond the world, and so on and so forth. At the same time, we encounter very non-straightforward things: t-shirts, newspapers, marathons, drug addiction, and the like. The affect of this is that the reader ends up noticing when characters adhere to the fantasy chronotope and when they don’t; we pay much more attention to the details of the chronotope itself.
I’m beginning to think this chronotopic disruption is a key feature of the New Weird. When I think back to the difficulties I had with both reading and discussing K. J. Bishop’s The Etched City, I think that a large part of it was that the novel didn’t fit into any chronotope, at least not for long. What starts out as a Wild West story doesn’t stay that way very long. China Miéville’s work plays with chronotopic disruption as well; for instance, The Scar seems like it will be an escape-from-a-harrowing-adventure story, but, while Bellis Coldwine does escape, it is in no way through her own skill or cleverness. I’m really excited about Swainston’s second novel, No Present Like Time; I want to see how she continues to develop the Fourlands and the chronotopic disruptions.