Swiftly by Adam Roberts – Review

I got this book as a present on my birthday this year but until I got rather ill with a nasty head cold I had not had a chance to sit down and read it.  I managed to get through the book in three days which is a long time for me with a paperback but for reasons I will go into shortly this was no average paperback fantasy novel.  This was one of the worst literary let downs.

I read a lot and like to think I am something of a talent with the written word and the formation of printed books too.  What the reader expects and what to deliver upon those expectations is also within my remit as a writer.  Swiftly appealed to me because I have been a life long fan of Gulliver’s Travels and the notion of a fantasy titled based on a world one hundred years after the discovery of Lilliputians, Brobdingnagians, Sentient Horses and Ape Men seemed to offer a great many chances for adventure, intrigue and fun ‘sideways’ looks at society and so on.  Indeed the blurb for the novel tells you that the year is 1848 and that Britain and its enslaved legions of little people have been beaten in a long drawn out campaign by France with her regiments of Giants.  The Giants have sunk the navy, crossed the channel, taken London and are marching on York where the ultimate battle will take place.  The central character of the book Abraham Bates loves a woman called Eleanor and the love between them will be tested as she is married and Abraham may be a traitor and a sinner.  Sounds awesome yes?

Well no….

I read the book without looking at any other reviews or online comments.  I looked at it with unsullied eyes and expected to be enthralled in the adventure of Europe at war and all of Swift’s creatures.  That did not happen.  In fact after a few chapters the apparent protagonist of the novel simply vanished without resolving the plot he was tied up in (this concerned Eleanor and Burton her fiancée plus her mysterious admirer).  This confused me a great deal but I ploughed on.  It turns out that according to magazine reviewers the first part of Swiftly was published as a separate short story.  Well thanks Mr Roberts!  I had not read it elsewhere but there was no linkage or fact telling you it was a separate tale!  It reminded me a lot of Evelyn Waugh’s Hand Full of Dust where the main thrust of the story is thrown away without resolution in favour of another tale.

Moving on to the remainder of the novel (or as I thought the rest of the sequential chapters) I will keep this brief as I do not want to bore you…as that is best left to the book.  Would you like to see the invasion of London by Giants, the battles in the channel, the fall of the British Government, the ongoing fights on the road to York, the final battle between the two nations, the arrival of a vast ‘starship’ above the battlefield, the conflict within that ship which turns out to be a vast giant (12 times a man, then 12 times or more again in size etc) and the giant cannon that is referred to many times in the text…well you can’t!  All of these events happen but we do not see them.

Our hero is a self loathing, flowery language using buffoon who is obsessed and I mean totally with human faeces. Oh and curing a plague by kissing as many soldiers as possible.   Almost the entirety of the text is consumed by endless conversation quite departed from the vast events happening in this fictional world.  Most of the time Abraham Bates concerns himself with crap at the expense of everything else.  In fact I threw the book down in a fit of rage at the end of the last page where this kind of behaviour reached its climax.  Bates and others discuss invading the sky giant like germs and taking it down from the inside.  Great you think, some action.  But no you do not see them do this you are told they do in a mere paragraph or two and then the last page is given over to Eleanor delivering one of her ‘droppings’ to him in a lovely little wooden box.

The jacket of this book promised so much.  A fantastic idea (two in fact as the author gleefully tells us in postscript) which he totally fails to deliver on as far as the blurb is concerned.  Throughout the tale you listen to the characters talk while over their shoulder the action happens just out of reach…want to go and see the Giants…well you can’t let’s talk about turds again.  The blurb is simply a lie.  Not factually, all the events its describes actually occur in the book, but this is not the book the blurb is selling you.  If they had told you it was boring, drawn out, without action and obsessed with shit you would have avoided it like the plague it features.

Don’t get me wrong I could admire the technical skill of Robert’s writing which is very good indeed.  I saw and noted the intricate weaving of references to the original text by Swift and other great works.  Roberts delves into major ideas on the nature of slavery and the human condition and he does it extremely well in a mid nineteenth century setting.  But it just does not matter the book is not what it says it is; it does not deliver.  It’s not that I cannot deal with deep works or ‘proper’ literature (I read Joyce’s Ulysses in it’s entirety!) but I just feel cheated by a book badly, badly mis-leading in its cover and blurb.

I also want to comment on the author Stephen Baxter giving a lovely and glowing quote on the covers of Swiftly.  I loved his novel Anti Ice when I was a teen and his recommendation sealed the deal on getting Swiftly…did he even read it or just the blurb…  Shame.

I keep all the books ever given to me,  I appreciate the time people take in getting me presents.  This book I will not keep. I will not sell it or give it to charity.  I destroyed this morning and it gave me more enjoyment than reading it did.  Avoid this book…its pure golden coated faecal matter.


4 thoughts on “Swiftly by Adam Roberts – Review

  1. Damn! This book is currently on my bookcase waiting to be read!

    Looks like I will read other things first then!!!

    • Give it a try Rob. You might totally disagree with me on this book. But I feel strongly that you will not if you bought it for the rear cover blurb.


  2. Based on Jonathan Swift’s work and yet no Laputans? I mean, Laputa was probably the most exciting and memorable bit of Gulliver’s Travels…
    Looks like I will indeed avoid this book.

  3. Thanks for your comment Sam!

    The book is based on Swift, but many parts are not in it. I do not think many people know that Gulliver went to many places on his travels. All these places were fictional…except for Japan. But yes, avoid this book if you are after Laputa.


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