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Smiler’s Fair by Rebecca Levene

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Yron 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.
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Smiler’s Fair is Hodder & Stoughton’s first secondary-world epic fantasy, according to their publicity around the novel; Levene’s novel is certainly a beautifully published one, with that cover. But does the content live up to it…?

Smiler’s Fair has one huge weakness, and that’s a simple one. Its plot is completely what one expects. This is straightforward first-book, epic fantasy territory; the Oedipan origins of the protagonist, ripped almost straight from the myths, involving the failed exposure by his mother who changes her mind about saving him. Krish then goes on a journey around the world, gathering a band of followers and escaping the men sent after him to kill him and even going through a full-blown training montage. This is all as trope-laden and dull as it sounds, plotwise. The other plot-strands are hardly any better; Marvan’s seems dull and adds nothing to the novel except a little suspense, Nethmi’s simply allows Levene to draw some threads together clumsily, and Eric’s is dull: the whore who falls in love, and then finds himself entangled in destiny. This is almost sub-Eddings plotting.

Smiler’s Fair, for all the lack of the originality of the plot, does have beautiful writing. Levene’s great strength here is her ability to evoke, with clarity and life, a world totally alien to our own; whether writing about the frozen wastes of the pole, and the aurora, or about dying of exposure, or the danger of fire, or even the pleasure of killing someone to Marvan, the writing is amazingly evocative. Levene makes it leap out from the page into your mind, setting hooks in there and drawing you on through four hundred pages of prose that are so lush, so rounded, so beautifully well-written, that they just won’t let go, even when Smiler’s Fair is at its most trope-bound.

Smiler’s Fair also has a really strong cast, for the most part. While one of our main viewpoint characters, Krish, barely has any character to him at all below a simple surface level, the rest of the cast are very well written. The depth of the characters, the understanding and empathy of Levene for all of them from the drunken Dae Hyo to the murderous Marven, from the lost Nethmi to the frustrated Sing Kyo, is stunning. Each has a meaningful interiority, which Levene makes come across beautifully in the novel, and there’s a certain tragedy to many of them which lends additional pathos to the novel. Smiler’s Fair doesn’t appear to have much time for the agency of its characters, however; Levene writes them as essentially purely reactive, without ever really making a choice, driven to act-act-act only by events: perhaps this is the first totally-deterministic epic fantasy to be written.

Either way, Levene has also got a lot of worldbuilding to do in Smiler’s Fair, and this is a rather mixed realm. On the one hand, the integration of information and narrative is excellent, so as we read on we learn more about the different peoples and places, without having the frustration of infodumps, “as you know, Bob…”s or other issues. On the other hand, the level of racial and cultural simplicity is rather shocking; Levene writes so many different peoples but all of them strike the reader as essentially analogous to the real world, and without some of the analysis or thought that requires. This is more appropriative than denigrative, but there are elements of the latter; Smiler’s Fair does colonialism especially badly, ignoring the actual impact of it on a conquered peoples in favour of just a sullenness, or tribal living, imagining tribes as utterly separate institutions without, for instance, intermarriage and barely even trade.

Smiler’s Fair itself is where this is different. Smiler’s Fair is centred on the travelling city of the title, which does strike one as both a sort of Soho and a funfair; it seems to have every vice there is available for the right price. Levene never draws it clearly enough for it to solidify but instead, leaves it as something we’re told of in broader, more fantastical brushstrokes, leading the reader to fill in the gaps; as a writing technique this strikes me as incredibly effective, especially for so fluid a thing as the Fair. This is where her writing style really lends itself to the novel, as the vividness, life, and strangeness of the Fair all come together brilliantly.

In the end, Smiler’s Fair is a beautiful book burdened by a terrible plot; Levene’s prose is stunning, I just wish she’d written something set in Smiler’s Fair itself rather than simply rewriting Eddings.


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