1) The Year of Our War, by Steph Swainston
Well, this is depressing. A Cambridge graduate, like me, who has dabbled in archaeology, like me, and now works in vaguely international relations stuff, like me, but is about six years younger and has produced a stormingly good first novel. Enough to put whatever writing ambitions I may have entertained skulking back behind the closet where they belong. Thanks to Cheryl Morgan and others for flagging this one up as a first novel to be taken seriously. It is.
My only substantial complaint is that I thought the book was too short for the large number of characters jostling for narrative attention. But various other bits worked really well for me; the narrator with his drug habit, the defenders against an inhuman menace turning on each other, the tension between mortals and immortals in a world where immortality is won by challenge. At first I feared that the habit of yet another unexpected revelation about the back-story every other chapter (characters unexpectedly turning out to be married, that kind of thing) would get tedious but she stopped once we had got the main points established, though this still leaves us wildly surmising about the rest of it.
I wondered why there was something vaguely familiar about the entire set-up, and then I realised that to a certain extent Swainston has based the relations between her characters on what could be observed in any large organisation’s office politics – squabbles over the fringe benefits for spouses, who’s chasing whose job, and the perpetual struggle for the boss’s ear. I would have mild complaints about the names (one minor character is called Leigh Delamere – groan!) which are not really up to George R.R. Martin level, let alone Tolkien, but at least she’s not anywhere near as painful as Robert Jordan. On the whole, pretty good stuff.