Michael R Fletcher’s Swarm and Steel

Dedicated readers of Mr Fletcher’s oeuvre may be aware that I’m something of a fan of his books. In fact, I blurbed the last two for him. Dedicated readers of my ownoeuvre may be aware that we’re friends. In fact, he kindly sent me the copy of Swarm and Steel I’m about to review. It’s with joy and relief , therefore, that I can only say:

Swarm and Steel is Mike’s best book yet. Even darker. Even madder. Even more disgusting. Even more extraordinary. Even more moving.

Actually, I kind of hate the bastard for writing it, because he pulls off things I hadn’t even dreamed about.

Mike’s got a (fully justified) reputation as the ultimate grimdark author, darker, grosser, more outrageous than pretty well anyone else. And, yes, I really wouldn’t recommend reading Swarm and Steel immediately before carving your Sunday roast. He’s … graphic about things. Sees through things to what’s actually there underneath them, all our illusions stripped away. ‘Your civilization stinks of shite’, one of the characters tells another at one point. Oh yeah. Everything does. We all do. Julia Kristieva says that we’re all dying one bowel movement at a time. Mike sees that, writes that. Literally and metaphorically, life’s just a pile of shite

That last sentence would read way better if the original quote ended ‘shit’, by the way. Damn you, Fletcher! Think about these things! I killed you off in my last short story, you know. Three times. Ha!

Ahem. Anyway.

Mike’s reputation as God of Grimdark is fully legitimate. This book cements it. Mortars it in blood. Some great fight scenes. A delicious lot of entirely gratuitous ultraviolence. Loving descriptions of wounds and pain and rot and sex.

But. It’s not just a splatter gore shock tits fest. Anyone can write one of those, and most of them are really pretty depressingly dull.   Murder rape torture rape murder. Yeah yeah yeah yeah.

Swarm and Steel isn’t like that.

One, it’s extremely funny.

Two, it’s extremely moving.

Three, it’s very intelligent and self-aware.

Four, it’s profoundly and totally about the power of love.

I fell a bit in love with Zerfall, the High Priestess of a religion of despair. I warmed to her and hoped for her. Unlike so many characters in literature, she’s completely real. She’s got neuroses, she’s insecure, she’s totally self-confident, she’s clever and strong and sexy and messed up and desperate, desperate, desperate for people to like her. She could be that girl I admired so much at sixth form college. She’s an antihero, but she’s not a villain. She’s what happens to people when they’re alive. (She totally justifies that amazing arse.)

I fell a bit in love with Jateko, the naive tribal boy, who has … interesting things happen to him. He’s your geeky embarrassing kid brother. He’s that sweet first-year boy who had a crush on me when I was doing my MA. He’s a murderer. He’s a cannibal. I rooted so, so strongly for him. I cared so much about him.

I use the word ‘human’ a lot talking about Mike’s books. Also ‘hope’. Which seems somewhat problematic at first glance, given what goes on in them. Given they’re basically about how shite life is (that final ‘e’ is still bugging me). But the world of Manifest Delusions is a world of insanity made manifest. We see, as through a glass brightly, the insecurities and neuroses and inner torments that haunt us all. Mike’s a clever guy. A husband and a father. He knows what the world is. What we all are. And he knows that it’s only by accepting it that we can ever hope to rise above it, at least for a little while. Understand ourselves to be flawed and filthy. Understand those around us to be the same. Love them anyway. Try to make life slightly more bearable for them. He shows us the madness, how vile and fucked-up the world is. Children die. People suffer. Lovers hurt each other and abandon each other and can’t even really say why. But he also shows how how life’s not about good and evil and some simple easy thing. We’re all monsters. We’re all worth loving. We’re all human and alive and full of potential, and that’s a wonderful terrible thing.

A hopeful book. Oh yeah.

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The Court of Broken Knives

‘Fierce, gripping fantasy. Exquisitely written.’