I just got back from a convention and the author of this book was there, doing a signing, so I took the opportunity to both get my copy signed and go 'what!!!??!!!' at her with flaily arms. That was the only way I could adequately describe what I was thinking when I got to the end of Smiler's Fair, which the author tells me is the first book in a planned series of four.
Before I go on to talk about what had me waving my arms, I want to start by saying how unique the world-building is for this book: essentially this is a world where there is an omipresent danger from below the earth, from creatures called worm men. The eponymous fair is a moving town which provides certain services to the populace where it travels, while others also keep moving from place to place, with one particular richer part of the population (the shipborn) living on enormous ships which are continually towed around lakes by mammoths.
The story is mostly told from the perspective of a number of characters. Firstly there's Krish, who grows up as a goatherd and discovers that he is the son of the king, abandoned because of a prophecy he would one day kill his father. There's also Nethmi, who is one of the shipborn and who finds herself being married off at the edge of what she considers civilisation. There are other characters whose lives we get a good look at too, but I'm going to concentrate on these two as clear examples of how the author takes fantasy tropes and drop-kicks them across the room.
After poisoning his often-drunk and violent adoptive father, Krish decides to leave his home (partly because he's about to be arrested for murder) and naively thinks because he's the king's son he can just get some allies and take the throne. Things really don't work out that well for him in this, but he also makes a decision at the end of this book which goes utterly against that overall plan, in service of loyalty to someone he has met along the way. Meanwhile Nethmi looks like she's being set up as Krish's eventual love interest as she accidentally (well, it starts off as an accident!) kills her husband and flees back towards her home. Later on though, another character encourages her to admit that she actually quite enjoyed the act of killing and by the end of Smiler's Fair she's getting her kicks torturing Krish and is planning to kill him as well.
The next book in the series (The Hunter's Kind) is out and I was lucky enough to pick up a free proof copy, so I expect it'll end up reviewed here soon, particularly as the author assures me she carries on doing bad things to characters I like. Where fantasy books are concerned, it's easy for a writer to be predictable, but I can assure anyone reading this that Smiler's Fair is anything but that.