Thursday, November 18, 2010

Book Thievery #1: Steph Swainston's "The Year of Our War"

Welcome to the new and only regular feature of this blog! For a while I've been doing on-and-off reviews of the books I read, but I realized that's not so fun, and you can get better reviews from a lot of other folks who focus on reviews specifically, rather than writing-as-someone-who-is-also-a-reader. So, in lieu of reviews, I'm kick-starting the Thursday Thieves' Guild, where I'll pilfer the best elements of my latest read and offer them up to the Internet community of writers for pillaging.

I'm going to start with a book by one of my favourite writers, Steph Swainston. Swainston's "Castle" series roots itself firmly in the classic heroic fantasy genre; but Swainston's style takes it so far beyond the pale of that old stuff as to completely outclass it. If you like heroic fantasy but don't want to read someone who sounds like they wish they were reborn as Chaucer, read Steph Swainston!

Let's get to the goods: if you're going to rip off Steph Swainston, what are the most awesome aspects of her worldbuilding and writing?

1. Drug overdoses that transport you to other worlds: No further explanation necessary.

2. Wings: The awesomeness of flying is so ubiquitous that it's easy to forget. What's extra awesome about Swainston's protagonist Jant is that he's got black wings - like that High on Fire album! - thus avoiding any angelic confusion. Flying is sweet, wings are sweet, get to it.

3. Enormous insects: Zombies are for posers. The new brainless enemy is the insect. Swainston's got enormous insects tearing her world to pieces with mandibles as big as swords. Watch out!

4. Contestable immortality: Immortality won by skill? That's awesome! If I lived in this kind of world, I'd be more mortal than anybody. But that doesn't matter, because the Thursday Thieves' Guild is all about profiting from other peoples' genius and natural abilities rather than your own.

Last but not least: modern clothing! I actually really, really appreciate the fact that the people in Swainston's world wear T-shirts; and every time she says that people are dressed in denim and leather, I wonder whether she secretly listens to Saxon (but I hope she listens to Anvil, instead).

Unfortunately, the best thing about Swaintston's books - the thing I'd, personally, most like to rip off - is her writing. She writes probably the single most interesting first person narratives I've ever come across, and her ability to paint images of fabulous complexity is unrivalled. If I knew how to rip that off, though, I wouldn't be writing this blog. I'd be bathing in George Washingtons!

... no, wait. Thomas Jeffersons?

So, if you're thinking of writing a story about an enormous, immortal insect that grows wings and can fly when it gets high - and became immortal because it did drugs like a pro - then go pay tribute at the shrine of Swainston and read one of her books. There's a lot of great "weird" fantasy out there these days, but Swainston's is so great because it's weird without losing its classic roots.