I don't read a lot of contemporary fantasy, but that won't stop me from proclaiming Steph Swainston as the all-conquering lord and master of the genre. Her writing is obv a product of her influences (Mervyn Peake, M. John Harrison, William Burroughs) but also presents a singular vision, with all the author's obsessions, grudges, quirks and daydreams jostling for space within. Sounds a bit all over the place, but it works because Swainston is a) super smart, and b) good company. Her prose is precise and witty, and she's very playful with the narrative voice. I've just finished the third book in the Castle series, where the first person narrator Jant confesses to the reader that he has fallen off the wagon: "But that was my only lie. Trust me." Which is great because for most of the book, the P.O.V. is very immediate and unfiltered, and to zoom out and start questioning the veracity of everything we've read is a lovely little twist. When the Nolans tried it in Inception, I balked, but this works because the move acknowledges the relationship Jant has built up with the reader. Like the characters he interacts with, we almost become a part of the story. Also, and this is super geeky, but I do delight in the little easter eggs which are buried in the text: a stray reference to the protagonist in Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus, the pet Triskele in Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun (I'm sure there are others).
In fact, what the stories in the Fourlands and the Shift represent is nothing less than a very detailed topology of the author's mind. Sure, all books are like that to a degree, but with Swainston you get the impression that there are very few rationalizations involved (I'm thinking of Miéville particularly here). Nothing feels forced into shape, what we're getting are direct messages from the emotional and imaginative life of the author. The Insects which plague these worlds, devouring all organic matter and covering the landscape in white paper, seemed to me to be a kind of impersonal, all-consuming virus or cancer eating away at the flesh of the human imagination. Now I've read Lovecraft, the Insects also resemble a metaphor for the horror of a callously murderous universe. In fact, a chapter in The Modern World is devoted to the different ways the characters face up to the fact of a godless existence. Ultimately, the Insects may originate in a childhood fear transported into the paracosm Swainston created when she was little, and their unstoppable force can serve as a stand in for any overwhelming, relentless opposition we face as we fight through our lives. They could be anything. They are certainly really fucking scary.
I'd heard that Swainston had given up on the author business, which felt like a huge loss. Just checked now and she's interacting with fans on twitter and writing again – in fact she's written loads! Hopefully we'll be able to see some of this new material published, and Swainston will eventually get the adulation she deserves.