The Fourlands are recovering from a devastating invasion by the Insects. The Emperor San has ordered reconstruction efforts to be undertaken, under the watchful eye of his immortal Circle, but many feel that these efforts are proceeding too slowly. Refugees from the front clog the cities and dissatisfaction is spreading. When the Swordsman Gio is unseated by a skilled newcomer, his resentment fuels the flames of rebellion.
Meanwhile, the Messenger, Comet Jant Shira, is commanded to join an expedition to a newly-discovered land beyond the ocean. Terrified of the sea, Jant can only get through the journey by lapsing back into his drug habit. The new land of Tris turns out to be a wonderful paradise, but the Fourlanders' arrival sparks fear and trepidation...even before an Insect gets loose on the island.
No Present Like Time is the second of four novels in Steph Swainston's Castle series, set five years after the events of The Year of Our War. Whilst earlier events are referenced and provide notable backstory for this volume - such as the characterisation of Jant and several other members of the Circle - the main storyline of No Present Like Time is self-contained.
As before, the novel unfolds in the first-person from Jant's perspective. The book contains three principal storylines: the discovery of Tris and the events that unfold there; the rebellion against the established order led by the deposed Swordsman; and Jant's own personal crisis as he deals with his wife's supposed infidelity and his own resulting lapse back into drug use. There is a feeling of duality to the novel, as the external, large-scale and major events in the outside world impact on Jant's own personal life and emotional development, the epic made personal.
This blending of big events and Jant's own personal issues is more successful than in the first novel, The Year of Our War, which I enjoyed but overall felt was not an altogether successful blending of traditional epic fantasy elements and the New Weird (Swainston is regarded, by no less than China Mieville, as one of the leading authors of that much-debated movement). Here Swainston is much more confident in melding these elements into a much more cohesive whole. She also makes much better use of the Shift, the other-dimensional realm that Jant visits in his drug-induced state. The Shift is a place where sharks can take on a human aspect and drive cars made of animal organs, and where time can be rolled back and forth at will (I suspect this is also the part of the book which Mieville nodded approvingly over the most). However, rather than just being the destination for an excursion to Weirdsville for its own sake, the Shift plays a key role in the narrative, both thematically and practically.
There are some weaknesses. The book features no less than two separate visits to Tris, complete with descriptions of the sea voyages there and back. In a novel that's only 400 pages long, that doesn't give the author much time to pack everything in. The result is that Tris itself feels somewhat under-developed. We don't see any more of it than a single town and the fascinating culture-clash between the democratic, Senate-led Tris and the Empire of the Fourlands, ruled by its immortal god-emperor, is not expanded upon satisfyingly. Also, as the rebellion against the Emperor gets going off-page during the toing and froing across the ocean, it is never really convincingly established either. Swainston does a great job of using it for plot and character purposes, but the thematic chance to really challenge and question the way the Empire is run is not exploited to the full.
Nevertheless, No Present Like Time (****) is a significant improvement over its forebear and is an enjoyable read, packed with satisfyingly fantastical ideas and some excellent character development of both Jant and several of the other major principals. However, some other elements could have done with a bit more fleshing-out. The novel is available now in the UK (as part of The Castle Omnibus) and USA.