I’ve been a huge fan of Steph Swainston ever since her first Castle novel. She’s one of the freshest and most interesting voices in contemporary fantasy fiction. So I was hugely excited to receive a review copy of her newest novel, Fair Rebel from Gollancz. And it exceeded all of my expectations, speaking to me in the way only a small and rare number of books do. .
Fair Rebel is the fifth Castle novel, building on the stories told in the previous novels. For all that it stands alone as a self-contained piece, I wouldn’t recommend reading it without having read the others. For those of you not familiar with Swainston’s Castle novels, she’s created a multi-racial place called the Fourlands, peopled by diverse races. The world faces a significant threat, from invading giant Insects. For millenia they have been mindlessly eating and destroying, slowly expanding their territory. But the Insects are just the backdrop Swainston uses to explore what are normally much smaller stories , focused around a group of immortals: the Eszai. Chosen by the Emperor San, they are each the best in their fifty fields, brought together to lead the battle against the Insects that has become the driving force and agenda for the Fourlands ever since the Insects first arrived. An individual Eszai can be replaced if killed, or if beaten in a fair Challenge by another individual. Swainston’s first person protagonist is Jant, who holds the title of Comet, the Emperor’s messenger. He is not your traditional fantasy hero: he is a drug addict and an outsider. The child of rape, his father was one of the privileged, winged (but flightless) Awians, his mother was one of the Rhydanne, a mountain people designed to live at high altitude. That makes Jant the only person who can fly.
In Fair Rebel, terrorism comes to the Fourlands. Swainston’s portrayal draws on a very British experience of terrorism (the terrorists use a cell structure and tactics familiar to anyone who has lived through the UK’s experience of Northern Ireland-related terrorism). But the terrorism in this book is also startlingly contemporary, playing on the narrative of privilege, prejudice and inequality that Swainston has built into the Fourlands. The bombers are drawn from a disenfranchised group who have suffered from social exclusion and poverty. Fourlands society relies on the systematic exploitation of their labour, and there is significant prejudice against them.
Swainston’s depiction of terrorism feels real and authentic. The violence is terrifying, horrific and arbitrary. It is aimed at toppling the Castle and the structures that support it. But it is a self-destructive backlash. In its anger at the exploitative structures in society it risks destroying the only mechanisms in place to keep at bay the existential threat of the Insects, with their society-destroying potential. In doing so, Fair Rebel asks whether those doing the right thing can ever do so with legitimacy if it is done without listening to or engaging with the concerns of the disenfranchised at the margins of society.
But Fair Rebel also asks us to reflect on the role of art and culture in society. They can be used to inspire the best and the worst in people, showing the impact of the rejection of talented musician Swallow’s repeated requests to join the Eszai. If we set aside the very things we are fighting to protect, is our struggle worthwhile at all?
Goodreads rating: 5*