This blog started with Michael R. Fletcher’s Manifest Delusions and now it returns to it in the third offering – Swarm and Steel. I had looked forward to this for months and it did not disappoint. I devoured almost all of it in one sitting and I needed a fucking cigarette after. I took a day to absorb it all before sitting down to write this but let’s begin with the cover blurb.

“Zerfall awakens in an alley, wounded and unable to remember her past. Chased by an assassin out into the endless wastes of the desert, she is caught, disfigured, and left for dead. Her scabbard is empty, but the need for answers—and the pull of her sword—will draw her back to the city-states.

When Jateko, a naïve youth, accidentally kills a member of his own tribe, he finds himself outcast and pursued across the desert for his crimes. Crazed from dehydration, dying of thirst and hunger, he stumbles across Zerfall.

Hunted by assassins and bound by mutual need, both Zerfall and Jeteko will confront the Täuschung, an ancient and deranged religion ruled by a broken fragment of Zerfall’s mind. Swarm, the Täuschung hell, seethes with imprisoned souls, but where gods—real or imagined—meddle in the affairs of man, the cost is high.

In Swarm and Steel, the power of belief can manifest and shape reality, and for political and religious leaders, faith becomes a powerful tool. But the insane are capable of twisting reality with their delusions as well, turning increasingly dangerous as their sanity crumbles. It is here that a long prophesied evil will be born, an endless hunger. The All Consuming will rise.”

I almost don’t know where to go after that. There is so much here to take in. So much I could discuss and delve into. Characters and story and how the setting shapes the stories told within it – and somehow I have to talk about these without coming off as a fanboy. Challenges and decisions abound.

This is Michael Fletcher’s 4th book – Beyond Redemption, The Mirror’s Truth, and The Ghosts of Tomorrow (which I’ve read but not yet reviewed) being the first 3 – and he keeps getting better. Over each one the narratives have gotten tighter. Less dead space. Not that there was much to begin with. This book is the finest example of that. There is nothing wasted. Not time nor scenes nor characters. Everything moves and weaves in a steady beat that picks up speed till it reaches a brutal climax that brings it all together. Characters feed into each other. Scenes feed into each other. The setting feeds the story. Everything works together so well.

The characters are noteworthy. Zerfall is my favorite character in the book and quite possibly one of my favorite characters ever from a book. Insane but seemingly controlled. Tormented by her own words and actions. Willing to make a god to destroy the hell she built. Brutal, violent, and cunning – and more caring in her own way than many so called heroes in other works. Jakoto is a trip. A wild ride from broken, fumbling child to bloody handed (and lipped) champion of Zerfall. Aas… what thought process gives rise to a sadomasochistic, thought projecting werecondor assassin with a love of puzzles? I can only imagine drugs better than I have ever had access to.

In fact this may be one of the greatest strengths of the book. The characters pop. They are memorable and strong. From the main characters to the side characters. Zerfall, Holle, Jakoto, Aas, and Pharisaer are all striking and unique characters as all POV characters should be but the minor characters have that same strength. Nimmer’s fear of the world oozes off the page. Gogoko’s honor and skill shine. Abiega’s cunning. And so many other colorful characters – though none made quite the impact in so short a time as Angstlich.

Seriously… fuck that guy with a rake.

The story is brutal and compelling. A take on religion – as has been a common theme among the Manifest Delusions books – with a harsh eye but not necessarily a condemning one. The actions taken are harsh because the stakes required harshness. This is not a book for the faint of heart. Cannibalism is a rather prevalent element in the story. Remember the blurb? The All Consuming will rise. Michael was not warning us of an after con raid on a buffet.

If I had one problem with the book it would be the bewildering array of terms and names thrown around. I sometimes found myself turning to the glossary at the back to remember terms and my memory for words is not inconsiderable. For the most part I feel the story gave context to them but I could definitely see it being a problem for some. It is overall a rather minor issue.

My final determination is this: the fact that Michael Fletcher is not a household name is a god damned crime. His work is the finest fantasy I have read in many years, Brutal, unflinching, and original in the extreme. Grim and gritty without sacrificing the fantasy. Too much modern fantasy feels more like historical fanfiction with how much of the fantasy elements they have determined is unrealistic but here? Madmen pull evils from peoples souls in the form of demons that rip and tear free of the flesh or turn into dragons who’s breath tears reality asunder or ignore death or birth gods and hells.

Fuck… I need a cigarette just thinking about it again.

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