Rebecca Levene – Smiler’s Fair

rebeccalevene-smilersfairYron the moon god died, but now he’s reborn in the false king’s son. His human father wanted to kill him, but his mother sacrificed her life to save him. He’ll return one day to claim his birthright. He’ll change your life.

He’ll change everything.

Smiler’s Fair: the great moving carnival where any pleasure can be had, if you’re willing to pay the price. They say all paths cross at Smiler’s Fair. They say it’ll change your life. For five people, Smiler’s Fair will change everything.

In a land where unimaginable horror lurks in the shadows, where the very sun and moon are at war, five people – Nethmi, the orphaned daughter of a murdered nobleman, who in desperation commits an act that will haunt her forever. Dae Hyo, the skilled warrior, who discovers that a lifetime of bravery cannot make up for a single mistake. Eric, who follows his heart only to find that love exacts a terrible price. Marvan, the master swordsman, who takes more pleasure from killing than he should. And Krish, the humble goatherd, with a destiny he hardly understands and can never accept – will discover just how much Smiler’s Fair changes everything.

In a land where unimaginable horror lurks in the shadows, where the very sun and moon are at war, these five people will discover who they are — and who they’re willing to become.

When Hodder & Stoughton announced their acquisition of the The Hollow Gods trilogy, I thought it sounded amazing and as the first reviews started rolling in I couldn’t wait to actually read it, as some of my favourite reviewers loved it. And once again my trust in them was proven right, because Smiler’s Fair was an amazing book. It is epic, it is grim – the prologue is just brutal – it is complex, it has a fascinating world and slips in elements of diversity almost without calling attention to it. 

I loved the world Levene created. With much of the original populace of the continent decimated during a war between Mizhara, the goddess of the Sun, and her brother Yron, the Moon god, the land has been colonised by the Fourteen Tribes and the people of Ashane. The original inhabitants of the land have all retreated up North and into the Moon Forest. This means that there are a number of interesting different cultures in the book and while we get glimpses of most of them, it’s only the Ashane and the Dae that are really explored in depth. I’m hoping we’ll learn even more about the other tribes and about the Moon Forest folk in the following books, because the glimpses we had, were certainly interesting.

All of these people, of all colours and creeds, gather at the Smiler’s Fair, a city that is packed up and moved almost monthly and which offers its visitors every pleasure and vice imaginable. Smiler’s Fair, like most of the other human habitations, remains mobile to avoid drawing the Worm Men, human-like monsters who live in the dark and kill humans for food. I loved how Levene used this premise to create a unique way of building  a community. It’s one that is always in flux – your neighbour one day might different from your neighbour the next – and one that brings specific challenges and solutions, such as building houses on tracks or building them on water and having them dragged along by mammoths. Yet all of these communities revolve around a fixed location, be it a lake or a mine; the Fair is the only one that has a circle that covers the entirety of the continent, which makes it an excellent focal point for this story.

The narrative is epic in scope with lots of characters. It’s true that there are familiar tropes aplenty in the book, the above blurb alone would yield at least five and probably more if you ran it against TV Tropes, but that is kind of the point. Because Smiler’s Fair seems very much in conversation with works that have come before. Krish is essentially your traditional farm boy with a prophesy attached, yet Levene turns the trope on its head through the choices Krish makes towards the end of the book. The same goes for Dae Hyo’s quest for revenge; he does not get the usual epiphanies about forgiveness or letting go his rage, no Dae just stays angry.

My favourite characters were Dae Hyo, Krish, and Eric. The interaction and the bond between Dae Hyo and Krish is classic epic fantasy and very enjoyable, while Eric was just special. I loved Eric’s arc, from his following his heart to journey beyond the Fair to his sojourn up North I really enjoyed his story. Eric is a mix of cynical male prostitute and doe-eyed romantic, which sounds antithetical and sounded work, but does so really well. Eric is also the reason we meet Rii, who I found one of the most fascinating creatures of the book. She’s basically a huge, talking bat, but she stole every scene she featured in. Hopefully, she’ll return in the next book. In fact, Levene creates more fascinating wildlife in the form of the carrion mounts, which are huge, rider-carrying vultures, the previously mentioned mammoths, and the monstrous beasts from the Moon Forest.

The two characters that left me most conflicted were Marvan and Nethmi. Nethmi starts out as a familiar figure: the daughter without agency who is traded away for political reasons against her wishes. I loved that Nethmi gains agency throughout the novel, yet she also takes a turn for the scary, which I found hard to swallow. It left me wondering about what clues I’d missed early on for her to change this drastically. Marvan on the other hand reminded me a lot of The Following’s Joe Caroll. He’s the same sort of compellingly disturbed and eerily charming. And like Joe with his cult members, Marvan’s treatment of Nethmi was frighteningly manipulative. It’ll be interesting to see how these two return in the next book and what their role in the story will be.

The one complaint I would level against Smiler’s Fair is that its build-up is very slow. Much of the first part of the novel is introduction of characters and setting without any clear indication of the overarching plot. It is only later in the book that the larger story becomes clear and the narrative begins to pick up its pace somewhat. Yet, to be honest I didn’t mind this slow build-up at all. There is so much going on, on so many levels, and there is so much to see in Levene’s world that I just had to sit back and enjoy the ride.

Smiler’s Fair is a fantastic beginning to The Hollow Gods and I can’t wait for book 2. The paperback for Smiler’s Fair is out tomorrow, so start the year off right and pick up this stunning epic fantasy. You won’t regret it.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.