I don’t read a lot of fantasy, but something drew me to this book – probably a combination of the striking cover and unusual title – and I’m glad it did. Smiler’s Fair is the first of a new fantasy series, The Hollow Gods, and I enjoyed it enough to be in no doubt that I’ll be reading the next one whenever it appears. It’s always difficult to know how much information on the plot to give away when writing a review, especially with fantasy as I think one of the most enjoyable things about reading a fantasy novel is discovering the world the author has created and the surprises it contains. I would hate to spoil any of those surprises for future readers, so I can promise you that I’ve included very little here that can’t already be found on the back cover of the book itself.
The story begins with the birth of a baby…not just any baby, but the heir of Yron the Moon God, reborn to human parents. His father, King Nayan, has heard a prophecy that this child will grow up to kill his father, so he tries to have the boy destroyed at birth. His attempt fails, however, and the baby escapes with the help of his mother and her maid. We will have to wait to find out what exactly happens to the child, because the story now jumps forward several years and we get our first glimpse of Smiler’s Fair.
Despite its name, the fair is not quite as wonderful as it sounds. Forced to keep moving from place to place – because something terrible will happen should it stay in one spot for too long – Smiler’s Fair adapts itself to each new location, reassembling and rearranging its labyrinth of market stalls, taverns and gambling dens. You may be able to find your heart’s desire there (the fair can offer “every food, every spice, every pleasure and every vice”) but it will come at a high price.
Smiler’s Fair provides a starting point for storylines involving five very different characters. First there’s Nethmi, a young woman who pays a visit to the fair on her way to Winter’s Hammer where she will become the wife of Lord Thilak. On arriving in her new husband’s fort she finds that married life is not going to be easy and is driven to commit an act that will change everything. Next, there’s Dae Hyo, the last surviving member of his tribe. Following the slaughter of the rest of the Dae, he has been left alone to find a way of avenging his people and is turning increasingly to alcohol for support.
Our third character is Eric, a teenage boy who works in a brothel in Smiler’s Fair. When Eric finds himself falling in love he must decide whether to stay with the fair or to leave and seize his chance of happiness. Next there’s Marvan, a rather unpleasant person who enjoys provoking fights so that he can have the fun of killing his victims. And finally, there’s Krish, a young goatherd from a remote mountain village who makes a discovery that changes his life.
At first, each character seems to be having adventures of his or her own which are separate from all of the others but eventually connections between the storylines begin to emerge and we see how each one is linked in some way with the central plot surrounding the re-birth of Yron the Moon God. Nethmi, Dae Hyo, Eric, Marvan and Krish all have entirely different personalities and backgrounds and so can offer very different perspectives on life in and around Smiler’s Fair. All five of these characters are flawed and they all do things at times that are shocking, cruel or unexpected, which makes them interesting, if not very likeable. The secondary characters are equally interesting – these include Sang Ki, the illegitimate son of Nethmi’s new husband; Olufemi, the mage of Mirror Town; and my personal favourite, Rii, a giant talking bat.
The world Rebecca Levene describes in this book is, in some ways, not entirely different from our own and there are echoes of cultures, religions and civilisations that feel familiar. But the world of Smiler’s Fair differs from the real world in some very imaginative and unusual ways. I was surprised to find that the fair itself plays a relatively minor role in the story; much of the action actually takes place in other locations. However, the fair is at the dark centre of what I quickly discovered was a very dark novel. If you’re going to read Smiler’s Fair you need to be prepared for violence, murder, prostitution, alcoholism and other serious themes. This is not a light and whimsical fantasy novel, but the exact opposite.
This did feel very much like the first book in a series, with a lot of time spent introducing the characters, setting the scene and explaining some of the history of this imaginary world. The ending is not completely satisfying because so much is left unresolved in preparation for the rest of the series, but I can almost guarantee that if you finish this book you’ll want to read the next one to find out how the story is going to continue.
Thanks to Bookbridgr for my copy of Smiler’s Fair