First published on Fantasy Faction
With Smiler’s Fair, Levene has done something very clever. No one can deny this is fantasy on an epic scale: we have five protagonists, each with a distinct voice, a world with varied lands and peoples, set against a history richly detailed in its cultural and religious makeup. The care Levene has taken in creating her world is remarkable, but her real achievement is doing so in a scant four hundred pages. Smiler’s Fair might be an epic fantasy, but it comes unburdened by an epic word count and that quality makes it, in my eyes, one of the best books this genre has to offer.
It’s said that Yron, the moon god, long ago defeated by his sister, the sun, has returned – reborn in the mortal king’s son. He will change everything. The story is set on the cusp of this change when the moon god is still unknown and in some parts disbelieved, reviled as evil, or worshipped. And that in itself sets this book apart from many others. Chapter by chapter, Levene skilfully presents us with different opinions until we’re forced to make up our own minds about the moon god’s return. Whether it’s an omen of good or bad, it’s certain to shake the world’s foundations.
Smiler’s Fair deals in a palette of greys. Every narrator is unreliable. Every character is flawed. There are no heroes or villains and inevitably different readers will be drawn to different characters. You know you’re oceans away from the old good versus evil story when a sympathetic character commits acts ranging from merciful to monstrous, leaving you, the reader, to pick up the pieces. It’s rare to come across this breadth of complexity in fantasy and even rarer for it to work on the scale it does here.
Our five protagonists are predominantly male, a fact I admit I initially balked at. We have Dae Hyo, a warrior and a drunk, driven by the need to avenge his slaughtered people; Marvan, a strangely sympathetic swordsman who kills to find release; Krish, the goatherd with a destiny, who is at first glance the most traditional fantasy character here; Nethmi, daughter of a murdered lord, sold in marriage and sent to live in an inhospitable land; and Eric, a whore travelling with the titular fair, who is hugely likable and certainly the most decent and unpretentious of them all. That’s a lot of characters to introduce in a comparatively short book, but by the end, I felt I was beginning to understand these people, as they were swept up in momentous events.
Unlike a lot of traditional fantasy, those events are very much of mankind’s making and the power that Destiny wields over a fantasy protagonist is not much in evidence. Instead Levene’s characters live and die by their own decisions. That might sound obvious, but if you set this book alongside The Belgariad, you’ll quickly see how little agency the protagonist, Garion, has in comparison, steered spiritually and even physically by the voice of the prophecy. Despite my love of Eddings, I appreciated how Levene gave her characters back their destinies, to make of them what they would. And as you’ll see upon reading Smiler’s Fair, that choice has serious consequences for all.
What I’m trying to illustrate by the above is the fact that this is a humanist novel. The gods are defined by humans, they take human form, their motivations and desires are understandable in human terms. It’s refreshing to see an author assume that kind of responsibility in a novel, particularly in the fantasy genre, which is renowned for its pantheon of gods or god-like beings, on whom a character’s actions can all too easily be pinned.
Also refreshing is the presence of multiple races, social classes and sexual orientations. Fantasy is taking a long time to shake off the Eurocentric, conservative, patriarchal bias, which has long characterised the genre, so Smiler’s Fair is a welcome change in that regard. Levene’s civilisation comprises a mix of the tribal and itinerant. I liked the idea of the shipforts; the way they’re dragged in endless circles around small bodies of water is somewhat metaphorical – it’s this pointless circularity that the moon god is destined to break. I always appreciate layers of meaning in a story, where even the landscape and the way people control it are reflections of the human condition. The movement in the novel – of Smiler’s Fair, the shipforts and the tribes – represents the constant unrest that is the curse of our race, the unrest that breeds war.
This complex world comes wrapped in rounded, effortless prose, the pace of which never falters. Levene is too much a master to info-dump, or to weigh the reader down with description, which is instead delivered more subtly. The Fair itself is a brilliant and sordid creation, utterly believable in its strata of class and chaotic system of governance. It’s a microcosm of the wider world, containing people from every walk of life and Levene’s depiction of it is enthralling. Everything – sight, sound, smell – is conveyed through the eyes of her characters, which not only introduces us to the world of Smiler’s Fair from the ground up, but also provides an invaluable opportunity for character development. Even though I had a favourite character (everyone does), Levene continually managed to captivate me with another character’s storyline. I loved the inevitable way in which the five strands came together with the Fair acting as both backdrop and adhesive.
Smiler’s Fair more than deserves a wider readership. My only regret is not picking this wonderful book up sooner. Thank Yron I don’t have to wait long for the sequel.