Author: Adam Roberts
406 pages • £18.99 (hardback)
Some speculative fiction ideas just jump right out of the page, and this is definitely one of them: a historical epic set in an England where Lemuel Gulliver was more than just the main character in a book by Jonathan Swift.
In Swiftly – see what they did there? – it’s a century after the discovery of the tiny Lilliputians and giant Brobdingnagians, and both have been welcomed into the civilised world exactly as you’d expect in the era of slave-trading and imperialism – with open arms, and closed manacles.
Swiftly is, ironically, a slow-paced novel, not outright mimicking the flowery style of the era, but certainly taking its share of cues from it. There’s little of the satire that made the classic that inspired it such a lasting success, but that’s not a problem – Adam Roberts is simply using Swift’s creations, not writing a sequel to his original story, and the change of style helps to give Swiftly its own distinct universe. It’s an excellent piece of historical fantasy in its own right, and would likely stand even without the Gulliver connection.
What makes the main story so interesting is the merging of human politics with the new inhuman characters; the struggles between France and England due to the addition of new manpower and technology imported from the rediscovered islands. It’s familiar, but just different enough to be fresh, and you’re kept slightly on edge when some less-than-PC concepts start getting thrown around – one character’s early objection to the Pacificans’ slavery is largely based on the fact that they’re not black. Politics aside, the depth of the world instantly destroys any idea that this is just glorified fan-fiction with a publishing contract.
The concept behind Swiftly was strong the first time Roberts used it, as a short story in a collection (which was also, confusingly, called Swiftly) and as a full novel it really gets time to breathe. It’s almost enough to make you grab a boat and head out in search of new islands.