This review is written as part of the Hodderscape Review Project.
Smiler’s Fair is an unassuming looking book. It’s a fantasy, which at first I found difficult to believe as there’s no heavily cloaked man on the cover. The blurb promises goatherds, orphans, lonely warriors and inescapable destiny. Hardly the stuff of original fiction, yet the book is garnering some stellar reviews. So what’s the deal?
This is a secondary world fantasy with a varied host of characters, whose stories gradually entwine. I love this device, so I was predisposed to enjoy the book, but all the same I am confident in proclaiming that Rebecca Levene has created something very special . Special and highly original. Original yet comfortingly familiar. The individual stories here are not particularly remarkable, nor is there a huge amount of excitement attached to each one. It’s the way in which they are bound together that makes the book so refreshing.
Levene has taken lots of tired tropes and created something innovative and interesting. There are six characters all with unique (and often peculiar) outlooks on life. From each of their stories the reader experiences a little more of Levene’s world. A world that is painstakingly created. Not so much geographically and historically but more socio- and psychologically. Levene does not map rivers and mountain ranges, instead she charts morals and beliefs. She’s a Tolkien of ethics and human frailty.
The Smiler’s Fair at the centre of the book is a travelling fair, continually moving, bringing delights and vice wherever it travels. All the players intersect with the Fair at some point in the novel and its continual motion gives the novel an additional dynamic dimension. The unfaltering progression of the fair propels the novel towards its portentous and momentous conclusion. I don’t want too say much more than that. The books is textured, nuanced and best explored with few preconceptions.
Reading the book I was put in mind of reading the Belgariad for the first time, almost thirty years ago. The characters and writing style are similar, but Levene has infused Smiler’s Fair with modern and realistic dilemma. Characterisation is excellent. Characters react in ways you would never expect, and interact with each other in ways which took me completely by surprise. The ethical questions that stand at the centre of the book, the nature of good and evil and the power of myth and belief, are fascinating. I’ve never seen moral ambiguities addressed so well in fantasy fiction and I found myself greatly envious of Levene’s talent. A sense of dread permeates the book, and after it wells up to the top of the story, the outcome is totally unexpected. The ending is awesome; as painful a cliffhanger as I’ve read in many a year. I haven’t awaited a sequel this much for a very long time.
Are you going to Smiler’s Fair? It’s unique and utterly brilliant, so you should probably catch up with it fast. Once more the goatherd is king (maybe…)
Many thanks to Anne and the Hodderscape review project for sending me a copy of this book. (Let me know when you’ve got book two, please!!!)