Miller, Deborah J: Swarmthief’s Dance

This is a thoroughly satisfying book from an author who clearly understands the central tension in fantasy fiction between expectation and originality. In all genre fiction, not merely SF&F, there are rules. Not that anyone can agree what they are; we just know them when we see them. But writing a fantasy novel that merely ticks all the readily perceived boxes is pointless; publishers’ slush piles are full of them. There has to be something more and this book certainly has it.

Swarmthief’s Dance begins with that well-beloved fantasy protagonist, the young boy who has stumbled upon some startling secret. Snoot has seen Ansanzi lay an egg. Is Ansanzi a dragon? If so, my interest might have waned a little. No, this is a dragonfly. It’s an insect big enough for men and women to ride upon, as Snoot’s mother Veda does, in the robes and mask of the Bakkujasi, the warrior priests. Only this creature is more than that. It has two states; the giant dragonfly and the swarm of smaller insects that coalesce in magical transformation to create Ansanzi. Who has laid an egg. Which is heresy. Which Snoot, small as he is, will nevertheless not recant. Though he will lie when he’s asked what he did with the egg. By the end of the very first chapter, this looks a very promising read.

For there to be priests and heresy, again, a favourite fantasy theme, there must be gods. As with young heroes in fantasy fiction, these have variously been done very well, or very badly. Here the mythic elements are introduced with subtle shifts in the writing to give a feel of genuine folktale, where gods are real and powerful, with passions far beyond human measure. Yet they are all flawed with the arrogance that stems from immortality and invulnerability. In his lustful pursuit of Aria, wilful Nulefi spirit, Rann, god and guardian of dead souls, outsmarts himself. Because, as in so much myth, it turns out that intelligence is not the same as wisdom.

The relationship between this godly wrangle and the events enveloping the human characters is not immediately apparent. Setting aside the gods, the narrative rapidly introduces us to Vivreki, a rascally youth with a long-suffering brother, Stief. Then there’s Asoori, a female warrior eager to prove herself in a culture where she doesn’t have the funds to purchase advancement, and Achios, an aging priest deeply entangled in religious faction fighting. Achios’s current preoccupation is the report of an egg, in a distant and hitherto unregarded province. Is it a dragon’s egg as the locals believe, heresy in itself, or a Swarm’s egg? Because something is badly awry with the great insects. Several Bakkujasi have succumbed to the dissolution of their steeds in mid-air.

Deborah Miller’s confidence and experience as a writer proves itself as clues are deftly slid into each narrative thread, giving the reader just enough pieces to intrigue without overloading the tale with irrelevancies. Every so often, the pieces currently to hand slide themselves together to show a whole new piece of the overall picture. Which, of course, raises a whole new set of questions, keeping the pages turning as the reader looks for those answers. Though not everything is explained. Deborah Miller clearly understands the value of letting mystery add another dimension to her tale.

As the story progresses, more narrative threads are added. Music might be a better analogy here than a jigsaw. Imagine more and more instruments joining a composition, to interweave melody and counterpoint. Fleeing murderous pursuit that he doesn’t understand, Vivreki rescues a damsel in distress. In keeping with the overall tenor of the book, Kalia is far more than a mere plot cipher, drawn with clear-sighted yet sympathetic appreciation of human frailty and confusion of motives and reactions. The same is true of Uriel, self-appointed guardian of the mysterious egg and of Cion, the vicious, ambitious Bakkujasi appointed to recover it. And there are characters you won’t have come across in any fantasy novel before, notably the pitiful yet unnerving sin-eater Sevim and his uncanny counterpart Spall.

Vivid writing sets the scenes for each crucial exchange or confrontation; the eerie, sacrosanct sky temple, the rabble-ridden market places, the barren wastes. These are peopled with convincing detail; with priestly factions, noble and common people, exiled afflicted and intimidating monsters. However finely-tuned writerly awareness of what is not needed means the bare minimum of extraneous background generally. This is not one of those immersive fantasy worlds, there is no map and I couldn’t draw you one. But that’s in no sense due to of any lack of imagination. Rather the story is always focused on the events and the individuals in the foreground.

Though the players are not all apparent to each other. Rann is still on some other plane of existence. Unseen, he increasingly uses mortal hands to do his bidding with a callous disregard for human life that only an immortal could show. As the story builds to a dramatic crescendo, Vivreki proves he can defeat human enemies with his quick wits, unexpected advantages born of generous acts in the past, and a judicious amount of luck. But how can he hope to succeed against a divine foe? That’s a question for the next volume in this trilogy, presumably, as the echoes of the startling final encounter die away. As the epilogue sounds a single hopeful note in the stunned silence.

This review originally appeared in SF Revu.

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