Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Stealer's War - Stephen Hunt

The Stealer's War is the third in Stephen Hunt’s “Far-Called” series.  It’s an adventure story, filled with high-stakes duels, roaring battlegrounds, betrayals, romances, and some serious twists.

The world of The Stealer's war, as with the remainder of the Far Called series, is part of a far, far larger one. The narrative’s focus is largely on the nation of Weyland and surrounding areas, but there’s a greater tapestry visible around the edges. Weyland is a country edging slowly into an industrial revolution, a hereditary aristocracy gradually being subsumed into an industrialist class. 

There’s some interesting room for conflict there, but Weyland is being torn apart by other means – divided between two feuding royals, one rather more heroic than the other, but somewhat less ably supplied. The former’s troops are now dispersed in guerrilla actions, an informal war from behind civilian cover. The author shows us the bloody reality of Weyland at war – hit and run strikes, ambushes, deaths of collaborators. Two books ago, it felt like the solid backdrop to a different story; it’s now wracked by fire, and feels far more fragile – but it’s a wonderfully realised country gradually falling into total war.

Then there’s Vandia. The superpower of the Far Called world, breaking armies of horses and crossbowmen using gunships and gauss guns, paying for their progress with a violent, competition-driven society which demands (and rewards) utter ruthlessness. We spent a good deal of time there in the previous volume – in this one, we’re following the “punishment expedition” sent to Weyland to nominally retrieve a lost Princess – and allow the settling of a few old scores out of sight. The Vandians are always a delight to read; they’re not, generally, bad people, but live within a system which causes and sustains untold misery. There’s discussion of how Vandian society remains in place, and we see a different, more human face to the Empire here – following a group of Legionnaires, along with a Weylander, as they drive forward on a rescue mission.  Vandians, it seems, are people too; they’re just distorted off the norm by the society they’ve built.
Rodal also features heavily. We’ve heard it mentioned in previous books, the mountain kingdom, the Walls of the World, and even met one of its famed pilots. Now we get a little more – clambering the claustrophobic air ducts inside the mountainous cities; sailing the river with supply barges. Breathing the thin air alongside the soaring, brutal winds. Hunt makes Rodal feel  distinct to everything we’ve seen so far – a more confined, but more pervasively spiritual world, with a martial bent.

And then, of course, there’s the nomads. Rodal’s oldest foe, breaking against the mountains. They’re familiar in a lot of ways, with a system of honour, a nomadic semi-democracy, and a tendency to settle disagreements with single combat. But there’s some lovely twists wrapped up in there – the way that the nomads are guided by a sorcerer who may be more than he seems. Or the witches that stare into the darkness of probability and guide the clans. There’s a complex society here, one it would be great to see more of. To be fair, that’s true of each of the conflicting groups the author has conjured. We largely see each society through the eyes of strangers to it, and pick up as much of the larger and smaller details as we can – there’s enough here for stories set within each of these places as well. Hunt’s world building has always been solid. After three books, he’s created a rich weave of cultures, traditions and societies which it’s a pleasure to be lost in.

As for the characters. Well, by this point in the story, we’re already familiar with most of them. There’s Pastor Carnehan, the priest-turned general, a master of total war, increasingly driven by his lust for vengeance. There’s his son Carter, who  spends most of the text in the company of the cryptic Sariel, a half-mad bard who drifts in and out of being more than he seems. Carter is defined by his love for another, Willow Landor, whose tribulations took up some of the preceding text. It’s nice to see him less conflicted here, given a clear goal and at least theoretically, the means to achieve it. Sariel, by contrast, gets a bit more time – now more coherent, he feels like a man trying to play a long game whilst also working out how the pieces move. It’s interesting to see his development from insanity to the semi-humanity of this text. He feels like a person developing a conscience – or at the least some compassion – and trying to decide whether to keep it.

Willow – well, Willow spends an irritating amount of time getting captured. She really needs to get better at escaping or fighting. Still, in between bouts of horror, she does reasonably well. There’s some room for character development here, as she deals with the strains of unwanted motherhood, and the pressures of being…well, continually abducted or otherwise tormented. There’s little of the girl from the first book left now, or even the more hardened ex-slave from the one before . She’s focused now, cool, and able to drive her agenda with a great deal of talent – when she’s not being chloroformed or held at gunpoint.

There’s more, of course. The villains are, in the main, appallingly unpleasant. I’m not entirely convinced that between them they have a thimbleful of redeeming qualities. Still. As in Othello, there’s a pleasure in watching an unredeemable villain take apart the scenery to achieve their goals. There’s some interesting conflict in perception as we watch some characters prepare to defend Rodal, and others prepare to invade it, one way or the other, all for the best of motivations. This more subtle conflict between points of view is subtly done, managing to keep us sympathetic to all sides of the equation, tearing our empathy between the different factions, who seem unable to exist together. Of course, every so often, we’re given some time with some proper black-hearts as well. Hunt manages to keep his plates spinning, all of his protagonists feeling memorable, distinct, a vivid dance of personalities at large – and his real antagonists absolute sinkholes of villainy.

The plot – well, it’s a large book, and rather a lot goes on. I won’t spoil it, but will say this: by the end of the book, absolutely everything - from the characters relationships, to the Weyland civil war, to the broader political situation, to the larger conflict hinted at in the preceding novels – everything changes. We fight wars with the Vandians , guerrilla strikes with the Weylanders. Follow Willow’s struggles with her family at the capital of the villainous king. Care for refugees in Rodal, and ride with the nomads against it. There’s a lot of conflict here, both personal and in a storm of battles that look to redefine the world we came in to at the start of the novel. It’s a sea change, one which rumbles on ominously at an unrelentingly fast pace, gripping onto the reader and not letting go.

Is it worth reading? If you’ve not picked up the previous books in the series, I’d recommend starting there instead. High adventure and excitement abound here, but it needs context to be truly intriguing. If you’re already invested in the series, then you owe it to yourself to pick this one up – it’s an absolutely wonderful read, and I can’t wait to spend more time in the Far Called world. 

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