Above the Snowline - Steph Swainston
In the harsh environment of the Darkling mountains, two almost-human races are competing for territory: the winged and urbane Awians, and the ruthless, uncivilised Rhydanne. Seeing her people driven to starvation by Awian overexploitation, the uncompromising Rhydanne huntress Dellin seeks help from the Emperor and his immortal Circle of paragons. And the Emperor sees fit to call on Jant, whose half-Rhydanne, half-Awian ancestry makes him the only man in the world who can fly.
But selfish, arrogant, and ashamed of his own heritage, it's not clear that Jant is really the right mediator. And, despite Jant's overconfident condescension towards his new charge, is he really the one who's in danger from Dellin? Could she even be the only woman in the world with what it takes to break his hardened, misogynistic heart?
The end of the third novel in Swainston's superlative Fourlands fantasy series featured such a breathtaking, tear-jerking twist that I was absolutely desperate to find out what happened next. And so I must confess I was disappointed to learn that the fourth book was a prequel. A prequel set in a time when our dashing anti-hero is not wrestling with his addiction to a drug that also transports him into the bizarre alternate dimension of the Shift. A prequel set in his backwards homeland rather than the front lines of the Fourlands' war against giant Insects. No addiction, no Shift, no Insects... Is there any meat left on Swainston's premise when you tear out these seemingly vital organs?
The answer, I quickly realised, is, "Yes, don't be stupid." I love these books so much because of Swainston's ability to imagine the most outlandish, out-of-this-world settings and characters and then incorporate them into properly plotted, intricately characterised, convincingly detailed stories. This is an author who can write a scene in which a giant insect tears the wings off a man and leave you wincing at the anatomical veracity she lends not one, but two impossible creatures. The Darkling mountains may be a lot more grounded than the most surreal locations Jant has encountered in the Shift, but this is still a highly imaginative story told with that same unexpected realism.
The characters are all sympathetic, even when they're clearly wrong-headed, and the shifting first person narration allows even minor characters the chance to leave an impression (as well as giving us a chance to see the Fourlands without the added tint of Jant's ego). Emotions flow tangibly from the page, and the darkness is balanced with good humour and wit. Above all, though, this is a book, like the three before it, that throws out any and all genre tropes in favour of telling a damn good story.