For a book that could, cruelly, be retitled Invasion of the Giant Ants, this is a wonderful read. Now I come to think of it, many of the ingredients of a superhero comic -- X-Men, Fantastic Four -- are there: but rendered in marvellously rich, poetic (occasionally over-poetic) language. This is a world that had a god, whose god is temporarily absent, and that metaphysical Problem adds a great deal of weight to the narrative.
Jant Shira, the first-person narrator, is not a nice person: but he's a very engaging character. The War of the title is interwoven with more personal conflicts, and nearly all of the other major characters are deftly drawn, with enough detail to make them rounded individuals -- though all seen through Jant's biased and embittered viewpoint. Jant has a particular gift: he's the Circle's Messenger, the only man alive who can fly. There are many sentient flying beings in the genre, but I don't think I've ever encountered one whose physical experience of flying is so very evocatively (and brutally) described.
I especially admire the way that the author introduces the myriad facts that make up her world: for example, it's only about half-way through the book that the significance of the title is revealed. I don't think there's a single info-dump in this novel: the downside of which is that it can be difficult to keep track of who's who, and of the geography of the Fourlands. (What, no map?)
Swainston writes with horrible accuracy about addiction: I think that's one of the most powerful aspects of the novel. She's not above playing games, either: for example, though this is a world quite separate from our own, there was a Great Exhibition in 1851, and decadence in the 1920s, and so on. Sometimes -- especially in the scenes set in the Shift, which is either a drug-induced hallucination or an alternate world -- the games feel a little self-indulgent: problemmings, fibre-toothed tigers. But hey, that's drugs for you.
The ending felt sudden -- not exactly rushed, but as though the book simply stops. Hoping she has more to say about this world, these characters. [checks Amazon. Yep, No Present Like Time is the second of the trilogy.]
reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place