Book One of The Swarmthief Trilogy
(Tor, £10.99, 314 pages, trade paperback, published 2 September
society? Check. Heroic swordsmen? Check. Sinister sorcerers? Check.
Major viewpoint character living in humble circumstances who discovers
that he has remarkable powers? Check. Someone casually browsing the
shelves of their local bookshop might be forgiven for thinking that
this was the first volume of yet another formulaic fantasy trilogy.
However, the casual browser would be mistaken. This novel also has
a good deal that sets it apart from and above run-of-the-mill formula
fantasy. I was particularly struck by the originality of one of the
central ideas of the story. Invertebrates don't usually play a significant
role in speculative fiction. Yes, they sometimes appear as the villains
in a certain type of science fiction. But in fantasy they are usually
relegated to the role of irritant or minor evil (e.g. Shelob in The
Lord of the Rings). By contrast, Debbie Miller's Swarms play a crucial
role in her story. The Swarms -- swarm intelligences consisting of many
thousands of individual insects, which under the right circumstances
can coalesce to form a single being akin to a giant dragonfly -- are
magical creatures created by a sorcerer-priest to be the mounts of the
warriors whose task it is to maintain the theocracy's control over Myr.
However, as the story unfolds it becomes clear that they are also much
more than that.
The story operates on two levels, reflected in the unusual device of
having a double prologue. The first part of the prologue introduces
us to the world of Myr where most of the action will take place. We
are introduced to the Swarms and to two children who will become major
characters in the story that is to unfold later. Impossibly, one of
the Swarms lays an egg and the child who witnesses it is banished. However,
before we can get our bearings, we are thrown back aeons into the shadowy
realm of the gods, where Rann the God of the Underworld is hopelessly
in love with Aria, one of the Nulefi. She rejects him and he is humiliated
by her sisters, so he embarks on a plan which should lead her to be
banished to his Underworld for all eternity. But instead of accepting
the judgement of the high god Herrukal, the Nulefi rebel and to all
intents and purposes are destroyed.
That brings us back to the mundane world of Myr. Since the gods are
woven inextricably into the fabric of existence, they cannot be completely
obliterated. In time, the Nulefi begin to take form again, but they
do so in a world where worship of the true gods is on the wane. Angered
by this turn of events, Herrukal has determined to destroy Myr, so Rann
is forced to intervene in the world of mortals in order to save the
Nulefi for himself before the apocalypse. The children from the first
prologue, now grown up, find themselves on opposite sides of a conflict
closely connected both with the Swarms and with Rann's machinations.
I enjoyed the book. Debbie Miller writes well, which is hardly surprising
since she already has one successful fantasy trilogy under her belt
(published under the pseudonym Miller Lau). Her descriptive writing
is particularly good, with passages that effectively painted mental
pictures of the Swarms, the sky temple, the sin eater and many of the
other characters and places. The characterization is strong, perhaps
because the story is written from several viewpoints, making us conscious
of the complexity of the major characters. And there is plenty of action,
perhaps even too much given the relative shortness of the book.
My main complaint is that it suffers from the besetting weakness of
an individual volume of a trilogy. The story is simply not complete
in itself. By the end of the volume none of the major plot strands developed
in the course of the 300-odd pages has really been resolved. But that
complaint aside, it is a very good read -- I await volume 2 (Swarmthief's
Treason) with anticipation and more than a little impatience.