The fifth novel in the Castle series of books from Steph Swainston is a complete rush of adrenaline and fury that delivers a bittersweet lament to the loss of arts and culture in a world rife with conflict. As Swainston puts it, turning artists into “engineers of war” who are tasked with inventing the best ways to destroy when their true calling is in creation is sad beyond belief.
It is with this sense of complete sorrow that the book opens, with a powerful melancholic hum that declares the death of music after the passing of Swallow. That desperate loss of humanity and beauty is felt deeply as you leaf through the pages, reading the richly detailed descriptions of battle between the immortal Circle and the insects.
If you haven’t already done so then you should acquaint yourself with the previous instalments of the series, as this one charges mercilessly into ferocious battle. There are a few mysteries to solve, with winged messenger Jant curious as to how Swallow died. The cause of death is suicide via poison, yet Jant has suspicions and investigates. The main mystery, which ignites a thorough inquiry through the Fourlands, is how a plethora of gunpowder barrels have disappeared, which in turn causes an extreme number of deaths. The Empire now has the power of cannon to help them with its war, and it’s clear a stealthy enemy doesn’t want them to succeed.
Swainston’s description of the blood-soaked battlefields is a mash-up of World War I and II imagery with an Anglo-Saxon twist. Tapestries, tents and underground tunnels where splashes of mud and grime cover her characters amidst mass explosions conjures up an involving and intense ambience. There’s burning of books with the loss of literature and knowledge also tapping into the idea of the rise of fascism.
This is a hugely entertaining, smart and passionately rendered novel that despite its fantasy setting has pressing real-world issues on its mind.