Once in a blue moon, comes along a book – first volume fantasy – that is so accomplished, bold, wildly imaginative and completely entertaining that it evokes….begs.. comparisons to the greats of modern Fantasy that includes GRR Martin and others.
Smiler’s Fair is a book that does all this with effortless elan and beguiling ease. Enfolding the readers into a brilliantly fascinating world where the Moon God killed eons ago is reborn among people and this cataclysmic event, prophesied and foreseen turns into a vicious web – ensnaring the lives of five ordinary people – all of this happens in the backdrop of a vivid, gorgeously realized milieu of an arcane nomadic circus group called the Smiler’s Fair.
The manner in which Rebecca Levene reimagines this tale of a God being reborn is punchy and absolutely delightful – with its fair share of deceit, sex, violence and the wildly fantastical, Smiler’s Fair is vast in its scope and spot-on in terms of executing a plot that wrestles all this – along with a wide cast of characters. None of them likeable really but ones that you cannot ignore under any circumstances. And Rebecca is an expert in creating those treacherous circumstances where the slightest misstep could lead to your doom. Every character – there are about six main POVs that we switch between – is struggling with their own personal demons and wrong choices made under pressing circumstances.
So – without being any vaguer – getting into the details of the story:
Yron – the Moon God is now dead. A lover of chaos, he was killed by the Sun God – Mizhara (that’s a She by the way. A clever reversal of tropes I thought) who likes order and rules over the world now. But the prophecies claim that Yron will return – reborn in this world. And there are still Yron’s followers and ardent worshippers waiting for this calamitous event to happen. That is when the King of Ashaneland – where the whole book one of Hollow Gods is set – has a child; born with the grey eyes of Moon God. Prophecy has that the Yron’s Heir will kill the king and naturally the King wishes to have his child killed as soon as he is born. But fates intervene and the child is saved. Left to be raised for sixteen years as a goatherd – Krishanjit or Krish.
In the meanwhile – Smiler’s Fair has come back to Ashaneland. A travelling group of performers; Something like Erin Morgenstein’s Night Circus that appears magically and has vices enough to satisfy the most crooked of them all. It’s no paradise. On the contrary, it is a grey dark morbid place really – with taverns running to rot, whorehouses promising all kinds of pleasures, animal shit that layers the streets and all kinds of degenerates running around. But it attracts the world to come over and have a taste of the forbidden. Likes flies can’t resist filth.
So to this madhouse congregate the weirdest of the world –
Marvan ( a warrior, a sell-sword? I really didn’t figure out what he was?) a twisted psychotic man so attracted to the idea of killing that he even gets off like that. The body count keeps going up.
Nethmi, the princess of a shiplord ( yeah – if they don’t roam the world, then the rest live on huge ships inside lakes being carted around by mammoths!) gets married off against her wishes to one of the highlanders lord. Married into domesticity to a husband who doesn’t love her, Nethmi’s days are hell on earth until the day the king’s soldier’s arrest a young boy and his mother. And the boy convinces her of the prophecy coming true.
Frankly Nethmi and Marvan are a bit of an oddball to be main protagonist in a fantasy setting. But Rebecca spins a compelling web of intrigue around them and it’s their actions ( maybe more of Nethmi’s) that really catapults the story forwards. Like strung in the back of an arbalest and let loose.
Dae Hyo – one of the tribesmen whose whole tribe is slaughtered by a wandering tribe called Chung – is now an alcoholic in need of a purpose. The Moon god’s heir might just be the one that changes his life. The quintessential action man, Dae brought a grace to the action sequences and a vibrant energy to the whole plot. Especially towards the second half.
Eric, a male prostitute finds out that the price for true love is too cruel. Having fallen in love with one of his clients, Eric decides to take the next step and leave Smiler’s Fair to follow the shiplord home. His life goes out of whack, in ways he never imagined. Nor did we, frankly.
And there is Krish – the goatherd who hates the fact that his father never really accepts him. One night the hate takes him over the edge and then he is on the run. Not for reason he thinks though. His acceptance of his fate as the King's son - wanted and hunted by huge parties - is gradual and sometimes unconvincing.
All their fates collide at the Smiler’s Fair in an explosive lead-up that will blow your socks off. Rebecca peppers her story with twists and surprises – the fates of the above five are lines that entwine and entangle more than once across each other with some serious stunning aftermaths. Truly I was pleasantly surprised that Rebecca pulled this off with this diverse a cast and a plot that keeps wheeling on and sucking you in. The names – for some reason – reminded me of Indonesian influences – Mahesh, Thilak, Krish? Are you kidding me – if the settings and world had not been so exotic, I would almost have put my bets on thinking this is based on Ancient India. But no – it’s an entirely original setting – exciting, gorgeously detailed and clearly with a lot of thought having gone into even the minor details that smacks of wild imagination. Prow Gods, Shiplords, Servants of Mizhara, the worm-men who shun the light, woolly mammoths and lots more.
It’s a delightful mix of things in the extreme. Lust and betrayal are strong themes. So what is Smiler’s Fair all about? God’s rebirth and man’s degeneration. Yeah sure. But Smiler’s Fair is a whole lot more than that. It’s a slow meandering exploration of the dark. Written in compelling lucid prose ( a bit that reminds you of GRRM’s protégé – Daniel Abraham!), this book is a brilliant opener to a series ( Hollow Gods from Hodder books is a quadrilogy) that might just give Song of Ice & Fire and The Dagger & the Coin [ both arguably the BEST Ever running epic fantasy today ] some serious competition. And yes, I am willing to bet on this one.