By Anthony Nanson
As I write (August 2017), Kevan Manwaring is attending Asylum, the huge steampunk jamboree in Lincoln. He’s performing there and also showing off the new editions of three volumes of his epic Windsmith Elegy, a genre-crossing work that Nimue Brown has made a compelling case for regarding as steampunk (among other things). Indeed, back in 2012 Kevan promoted the previous editions of the books with a stage show performed by his Steampunk Theatre Company.
The new edition of Volume 1 – the rather less steampunky The Long Woman – came out last December. The next two volumes – Windsmith and The Well Under the Sea – are newly republished and looking very smart in, once again, their Steve Hambidge cover designs.
These are the biggest two volumes of the five-book series. Each is self-contained in its own distinct setting within Shadow World, the realm of the dead. In Windsmith, this is an analogue of Bronze Age Wessex, informed by real archaeological finds in that region, tales from Celtic mythology, and the images embossed in the Gundestrup Cauldron. The Well Under the Sea is set in and around the luxurious island city-state of Ashalantë, which conflates the mythology of Atlantis and other ‘lost islands’ (see Kevan’s non-fiction book Lost Islands), and adds into this milieu the ‘lost of history’ – individuals who have vanished without explanation during the history of our own world. A particular case in point is the aviatrix Amelia Earhart, with whom the protagonist, Isambard Kerne, becomes romantically involved. In both books, the detail of world-building involves a back-extrapolation of stories behind the piecemeal relics of antiquity that survive in legend and archaeology; the same kind of impulse that drove Tolkien’s mythmaking.
Another thing I love in these novels is their committed exploration, in the course of all the drama and romance, of the pathway of a bard’s development; a theme very close to Kevan’s heart, since, outside his fiction writing, he has himself followed a bardic path for many years. In Windsmith, this has mainly to do with Kerne’s mastery of the Ogham, understood as a system of ‘woodwords’ that can work bardic magic in times of need. In The Well Under the Sea, Kerne learns to train his mind to summon winds, and thence to compose and sing a song that will enable him to fly.
As I’ve already hinted, the Windsmith books defy neat genre categorisation; they have elements of antiquarian fantasy, liminal and portal-quest fantasy, steampunk, mythic fantasy. One reviewer referred to them as ‘bardic fantasy’, and this strikes me as a particularly fitting label, given their bardic concerns, which are embedded even in their protagonist’s name, Isambard. I look forward to announcing, soon, the new editions of the remaining two volumes, The Burning Path and This Fearful Tempest.