There’s something for everyone at Smiler’s Fair. Be you young or old, small or tall, green around the gills or hardened by the horrors of war, the travelling carnival will welcome you with open arms before attending to your every pleasure.
Say you want to drink yourself into oblivion or dabble in drugs from distant lands—head on over to the mobile market. Perhaps your deepest desire is to look Lady Luck in the eye at the high stakes tables, or earn enough money wheeling and dealing to make your way in the wider world—well, what’s stopping you? Maybe what you’ve always wanted is to satisfy some carnal fantasy with a well-kept sellcock. Smiler’s Fair doesn’t care… not so long as the coin keeps coming.
The carnival is a crossroad of sorts in the splintered society of Rebecca Levene’s first fantasy, where all people are treated equally—albeit as marks, in the main. Regardless, the poor mingle with the rich, the soldiers with the civilians and so on. Appropriately, it’s here that our heroes meet at the very beginning of the book. And what an unlikely lot they are! There’s Dae Hyo, an alcoholic warrior without a tribe to fight for; Krishanjit, a humble goatherd destined to kill a King; a restless seventeen year old sex worker called Eric; and the master swordsman Marvan—a serial killer in his spare time.
And then there’s Nethmi, the orphaned daughter of a shipborn lord whose uncaring uncle has essentially sold her to the highest bidder. In a matter of days she’s to be sent to Winter’s Hammer, a shipfort in the distant wilderness, where she’ll be married to a Lord who doesn’t like her, far less love her. But before she goes, in “petty act of rebellion,” she visits the fair with a friend:
The gates were wood and twice as tall as a man. Through them she could see a broad street surfaced with straw and lined with buildings three, four and even five storeys tall, leaning perilously above the crowds. Further in there were taller spires yet, brightly tiled and hung with pennants whose designs she didn’t know: a fat, laughing man, dice and—she blushed and turned away—a naked breast. It was impossible to think that none of this had been here two days before. And the people. Tall, short, fat, thing, with skin and hair of every shade, a babble of languages and faces eager for the entertainments of the fair. It was hard to imagine herself a part of that crowd, swept along in its dangerous currents.
In premise, the part Nethmi plays in Smiler’s Fair is sure to sound familiar to epic fantasy fans—as will Krishanjit’s superficially predictable path through the narrative: he’s the chosen one, don’t you know. But no. Not exactly. As Olufemi—one of the faithful on his trail—explains:
This was the part where the real questions came, and the answers always differed, depending on which would serve her best. Why was the son taken? Because he was marked for death by the King and saved by his mother. Because the moon’s servants stole him, knowing the future that lay ahead of him. Because the King sent him away for his own safety. What’s so special about the boy? A prophecy foretold he’d kill his father and bring evil to the world. A prophecy foretold he’d save the world from the evil of his father. Why do you want him? To save him. To kill him.
Brilliantly, there’s more to Krish’s story than it seems, and the author introduces complexity in Nethmi’s sections as well. Both characters are changed by actions they undertake at the climax of the opening act—murders, as a matter of fact—and our perception of them alters accordingly. There comes a point when we have to ask ourselves: what kind of heroes are these?
In this way Levene sets about subverting our expectations, a practice she plies to excellent effect throughout Smiler’s Fair, which, in all seriousness, must be the most exciting start to a fantasy series I’ve experienced in years. And I do mean experienced. The first volume of The Hollow Gods is a sensory feast: expect to see it, smell it, hear it, and finally, feel it.
The world, which the author wisely widens with every chapter, is vast—with “something new to be discovered” in its every territory—and different enough from most milieus to stand apart, largely because its people must make their homes on ships and the like rather than the land. Why? Well, wherever a shadow falls for long enough, servants of the moon, known as worm men by most, manifest themselves from the earth, eviscerating anyone unlucky enough to be in their way, come what may. This is the reason Smiler’s Fair—a fine foothold for folks to focus on at the start of a saga sure to leave it behind in time—must move from place to place on a regular basis.
It’s a great gimmick, wonderfully intertwined with the tale Levene so elegantly tells, which walks the line between the majestic epics Daniel Abraham is, if you ask me, master of at the moment, and the grimdark doings of Joe Abercrombie and his cronies. To be sure, the body count is brutal—more than one of the major players meet ugly ends before the thing is through—but there’s beauty in this book to boot, as exquisite as it is unexpected.
Fans of either Abraham or Abercrombie—fans of fantasy full stop, in fact—will find lots to like in Smiler’s Fair. Its setting, its narrative, its characters—unlikeable as they are—all impress immensely, developed as they are with depth and discerning detail. In truth, the only complaint I’d make about the book is that there isn’t more of it.
Clearly, The Hollow Gods has me. Give it a good, long look and I guarantee it’ll have its hooks in you too.
Smiler’s Fair is available July 31st from Hodder & Stoughton.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.