Steph Swainston’s Fair Rebel is the fifth novel in her ‘Castle’ series. The first three (No Present Like Time, The Year of Our War, The Modern World, published 2004-2007) established the setting of the Fourlands, a secondary world of anachronistic technology not analogous to any real-world historic epoch: part medieval, part Renaissance, part Steampunk, part C20th equivalent. In it, the Circle—a group of elite experts in selected fields are granted immortality (longevity but not physical immunity) by the enigmatic Emperor San, to lead the fight in a never-ending war against the Insects that ravage this world, and neighbouring worlds reachable only via metaphysical means.
Swainston’s fourth novel, Above the Snowline (2010), is a prequel to that trilogy but Fair Rebel continues the main timeline, set some fifteen year later. As with those books, we experience the world through the eyes of Jant, the winged messenger of The Circle, who achieved and maintains his immortal status by continuing to be the swiftest of flight and foot in the land—a role which drove Jant to narcotics addiction. Because of this, he was held in low regard by his peers in The Circle, each of whom is supposed to be a role model to their mortal human compatriots. This made Jant, with his dubious morals, and ‘sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll’ sensibility, a deliciously antagonistic character: he benefitted from the powers and lifestyle imbued by immortality but was at odds with its responsibility.
The Immortals represent the very best in their fields, these being either martial skills, (for example, the greatest archer in the land earns the Immortal title of ‘Lightning’), or in fields directly beneficial to the war effort such as engineering, medicine, sailing, or pyrotechnics. Only one person can attain each of the fifty Immortal positions, the price of which is to hold off all challengers in regular competition—being out-performed means being stripped of immortality and returning to a life of ageing normally.
As such, Immortals are viewed with both envy and suspicion by mortals; and yet they also represent the best ‘weapons’ in the war as well as the perfection to which mortals can aspire—a chance for anyone to better themselves. But not every skill is deemed worthy by the Emperor as supporting the war effort.
There is no Immortal musician, for example. The finest composer in the land, a young woman of unparalleled gifts, has strived to make a case for such, but failed. Her suicide is the story’s departure point, deeply felt by many touched by her music, including Immortals. This opens an interesting thematic investigation of how we value creative qualities, particularly in times of war when more pragmatic capabilities seem paramount—a challenging question in our own tumultuous times. Emperor San only offers a cursory rationale to his refusal or for the rules for Immortality. The tragedy of the composer’s death seems indicative of The Circle’s increasingly elitist position. . . not everyone thinks they are heroes worthy of worship. The disenfranchised elements of society see little future, resent the privilege and insularity of The Circle and so the seeds of sedition are sown.
The Insects are a mindless and implacable foe without knowable motivation—a reprehensible and relentless swarm. Think: the aliens in Starship Troopers. Fifteen years after the last devastating Insect attack, The Circle has harnessed the power of gunpowder and is finally ready to launch an offensive against the Insects. Their plans are threatened when vital barrels of gunpowder go missing. Jant is tasked to investigate and it becomes clear that the theft is part of a deadly conspiracy targeting The Circle. From here, the story moves swiftly through action set-pieces, crisp dialogue and interweaving sub-plots, the author’s flowing style maintaining pace even in reflective moments.
The war against the Insects becomes peripheral to the main action, which focuses on inter-human scheming and guerrilla warfare, musing on themes of resistance, empowerment and the consequences of violent action. In reducing the time spent on the battle frontline the urgent ‘monster horror’ of the previous books is lessened, replaced with the underlying tension of an unseen and more cunning enemy—not necessarily a flaw, depending on your preferences, but a shift in emphasis and tone from earlier books.
Another shift is in Jant himself: no longer carefree and careless, Jant is now careworn, caring and, well. . . a bit sensible. His irascible wit, irreverence and irresponsibility are replaced by an adherence to doing the right thing, rather than just doing drugs. Without his roguish derelictions of duty, offbeat/off-schedule sexual encounters, and verbal/metaphorical ‘fingers’ to authority, he is no longer anti-Establishment but part of it. . . that’s a shame.
Whilst the main story reaches a point of resolution, the hooks are there for more in the series. In focusing on the human motivation behind insurrection rather than alien foes, Swainston demonstrates how fantasy engages with the real world rather than seeking escape from it and the quality of writing, the intrigue of the plot and the unique nature of the world will make any follow-up to Fair Rebel a compelling read. Let’s just hope Jant gets his mojo back.