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‘Above the Snowline’ – Steph Swainston

10 March, 2010

My brain is still stuck in ‘what the hell am I doing mode?’, so no writing news to report. I have been reading though, so I thought I’d post my thoughts on Steph Swainston’s newest book, Above the Snowline.

For anyone who’s familiar with the series, Above the Snowline takes place before the previous three books, relating the story of Jant coming to terms with his Rhydanne heritage as he tries to mediate between Awians and Rhydanne over the construction of a new manor in Darkling. Rather than simply tell the story from Jant’s perspective, we also get chapters from other participants in the book’s events, including Lightning and Raven, governor of Carniss. At first, I’ll admit I found this a bit off-putting – it takes a while to get to Jant’s chapters, when I’d wanted to hear from him straight away. However, splitting the POVs this way gives the book a number of different voices and tones, which made it more interesting without overly complicating the plot.

In terms of plot, I won’t attempt to summarise any more than I have above. Above the Snowline feels deceptively simple when you’re reading it, but there’s a lot going on: dealings with the Rhydanne, Awian politics, frontier living and Jant’s relationship with Dellin. No single plotline dominates the others and instead all entwine tightly together, moving the story along quickly to a satisfying end.

My one main concern with Above the Snowline was the description of setting which, whilst evocative, sometimes runs on longer than I would have liked. Still, Swainston’s writing is strong enough to make descriptions of forests and glaciers and mountains compelling, lending a real sense of place to the novel – and it’s refreshing to come across a setting in a fantasy that isn’t yet another faux-Medieval civilisation. In fact, from the Rhydanne I got more of a sense of an European prehistoric people. In the descriptions of their lifestyle, including things like meat butchery and flint knapping, I was immediately reminded of my archaeology degree. Swainston’s biography says she’s worked as an archaeologist and it shows in the Rhydanne. (Incidentally, the particular scene involving flint knapping vividly recalled archaeological evidence from a particular Neanderthal cave site, but I won’t say more than that or it’ll spoil the story!) However, don’t let me give you the impression that the Rhydanne’s lifestyle is described in a dry, scholarly manner, as it’s actually vivid and beautifully realised, with the archaeology visible only if you know what you’re looking for.

I’ll admit, finally, that Above the Snowline wasn’t my favourite of Swainston’s books, simply because I never really grew to like the Rhydanne – but I’m not sure the reader is supposed to. They remain fascinating but ultimately as bizarre to modern thinking as our ancient ancestors would likely seem, were we to meet them today. Still, Above the Snowline is beautifully written, tightly plotted and compelling, without a single extraneous scene. Like the rest of the novels in this loose series, it stands well above most current fantasy and has already got me impatient for the next installment.

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