Book Review: Swarm and Steel by Michael R. Fletcher
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Series: A novel of Manifest Delusions
Publisher: Talos (August 22, 2017)
Length: 352 pages
You know the saying, “That’s so crazy, it might just work?” Well, this is definitely true of Michael R. Fletcher’s latest Manifest Delusions novel. Featuring a new standalone tale, Swarm and Steel brings readers back to this world in which magic is insanity and the more deranged you are the more powerful you get. This, my lovelies, is the realm of the Geisteskranken, home to those whose delusions are made real.
The protagonist of this story is a woman named Zerfall, whose abilities are unique even in a world full of strange and uncanny Geisteskranken. Upon waking up in a dark alley, she does not remember how she got there, or anything about her past, for that matter. All she knows is that someone has sent an assassin on her trail, leading to a harrowing chase which ultimately ends in the desert with Zerfall gravely wounded and fighting for her life. But in her struggles to survive, she’s also starting to overcome her amnesia, with snippets of memories coming back slowly but surely. She remembers almost killing her sister Hölle by putting a blade through her belly, though she cannot exactly recall why she wanted to kill the other woman (and trust me when I say that finding out the answer to this question is the fun part).
Meanwhile, somewhere else in the desert, a young man named Jateko is fleeing for his life after accidentally killing another member of his own tribe. Mad from hunger and thirst after being hunted across the wastes by the victim’s vengeful kin, Jateko chances to stumble upon Zerfall, thus kicking off one of the most bizarre and eerie relationships I’ve ever come across in a fantasy novel. Teaming up, they decide to travel back to the city on a dead horse (yes, I said a dead horse) to confront Hölle, who currently oversees the Täuschung, a religious sect founded by the two sisters. Zerfall believes she must completely destroy the Täuschung in order to undermine Hölle’s power, and Jateko is all too willing to help. Completely smitten with Zerfall, he vows he will defeat and cannibalize their enemies in order to grow stronger, the better to fight by her side.
If you read that last bit and thought to yourself, “What the fuck?”…well, I don’t blame you. I have to hand it to Fletcher. His ability to come up with the most crazy and messed up scenarios never ceases to amaze me, and I genuinely mean that as a compliment! Having read his other Manifest Delusions novels, I thought I had seen it all, but somehow Fletcher always manages to raise the bar on himself and surpass it with every new book. If you’re a fan though, you probably know this already. Swarm and Steel is certainly not for the squeamish, even for readers accustomed to the grimdarkest of grimdark, but if you enjoyed Beyond Redemption and The Mirror’s Truth, then returning to this world will likely be as enjoyable for you as it was for me.
Still, since we follow a new cast of characters in this story, if you’re a newcomer to the world, there’s no need to read the other Manifest Delusions novels before jumping in—though prior experience with the setting will probably make things a little less overwhelming and disorienting, especially given the little references to the previous books you’ll find here and there. Learning about the different types of delusions and picking up the terminology will come in time though, as the narrative sets up backstories for both Zerfall and Jateko. Admittedly, the two of them are no Bedeckt, Stehlen, and Wichtig—our new protagonists don’t have quite the same amount of synergy in their dynamic as the original trio from Beyond Redemption—but their interplay was fascinating to watch all the same. Fletcher is flexing his writing muscles here, trying out new characters and developing new forms of relationships, and I also loved how this allowed for more unique circumstances and opportunities for action and dark humor. In time, I found myself gradually warming up to Zerfall and Jateko in spite of their unusual bond.
As always, Michael R. Fletcher’s talent for characterization makes his work stand out from everything else this genre has to offer, not to mention the sheer depth of his imagination—which is as formidable as it can be frightening sometimes! All this makes him one of my must-read authors, and I would enthusiastically recommend Manifest Delusions to all avid readers of grimdark or dark fantasy, with a guarantee that they’ll be like nothing you’ve ever seen before.