Steph Swainston‘s Castle series comprises (for now) five books. The original trilogy; The Year of Our War, No Present Like Time, The Modern World, a prequel; Above the Snowline and a recently released sequel Fair Rebel. When her work first appeared in 2004 it was immediately tagged as part of the recent and somewhat nebulously defined ‘new weird’ sub genre joining the books of such authors as China Mieville, K J Bishop and Jeff VanderMeer. The new weird genre is a notoriously hard one to define since there seems to be no clear definition of what it actually is. One thing that most of the books tagged with the name do have in common is that they tend to mix elements from multiple speculative fiction sub genres into a cohesive whole that doesn’t fit neatly into any of them. In the case of the Castle series, it’s mostly fantasy with some steam-punk elements and some quite complex metaphysics and ideas about the subjective perception of reality.
Beginning with The Year of Our War we are introduced to Jant, a hybrid of two of the world’s humanoid races, one large and winged though flightless and the other small and light boned. As a result Jant can fly, and that ability makes him useful to the Emperor. To remain in favour Jant must continue to serve as the messenger, but flight comes at the cost of considerable physical pain. Years of combating this pain have turned Jant into a drug addict, a weakness that others in the court are willing to use against him. In his role as humanity’s defender, the Emperor has been warring against the giant insect horde that threatens to overwhelm them. The walls that once held them in check are failing and soon all the Emperors court will be drawn into the fray. This of course includes Jant, but it could be that he is destined to do more than just deliver messages. In his drug fuelled reveries he dreams, and though they are oddly consistent he always attributed that to the drug. Now elements from his dream world and his waking one are starting to collide and he’s starting to question if everything he thinks he knows about the Emperor, the insects, the court and even the world itself.
This is strange but compelling series and I’m very glad to see it back in print. I haven’t read the recent prequel and sequel, but the Castle trilogy remains one of my favourite new weird series and I highly recommend them to any fantasy reader after something unconventional.