Smiler’s Fair is slightly outside my wheelhouse—not only is it an epic fantasy written in a more grimdark, GRRM-esque style (which I’ve been sort-of-but-not-really trying to avoid), but it’s a UK novel that’s currently unavailable in the United States. (I was able to procure a copy thanks to ILL.)
So why did I decide to read it? Curiosity, mainly. I’d read the book’s synopsis and a review on tor.com and was intrigued by the story’s premise and the promise of a band of raggledy-taggledy characters.
A long time ago, the moon god Yron died at the hands of his sister, the sun Mizhara. And now he’s been reincarnated as the King’s son, destined to kill his father. As rumor of his existence spread, people and factions will be looking for him, each with their own agendas. In a land where the shadows and even staying put for too long is unsafe for fear of attack from the underground worm men, the people of Ashanesland and the members of the Tribes constantly move themselves and their homes in order to stay safe. Among them all exists Smiler’s Fair, a traveling carnival where every form of pleasure and vice can be found and bought. Smiler’s Fair is the magnet binding five people together:
Nethmi is the daughter of a murdered nobleman who, in wedding a man she doesn’t want, discovers an attachment to death she didn’t realize she had. Eric is a sellcock (i.e., sex worker) of Smiler’s Fair who leaves to be with the person he desires most only to find himself halfway around the world and entangled in matters of gods he wants no part of. Dae Hyo is one of the sole members of his people left alive after the genocidal slaughter of his tribe. A talented warrior, he yearns for vengeance for the Dae and for the Dae land to be reclaimed by its rightful inhabitants. Marvan starts out a serial killer semi-in-denial who grows to embrace his love of killing. Krish is a goatherd’s son with a parentage and a destiny he is in no way ready to fulfill or currently capable of achieving.
I was really hoping to find an unexpected gem in Smiler’s Fair, and that did not happen. If my description of the five different viewpoint characters seemed especially jumbled, that’s because that’s how the book read to me. Ostensibly all five viewpoint characters are connected to the growing power of Yron the moon god now that he walks the land once more in reincarnated form. Yet few of their plotlines or character arcs gelled with one another’s, and some of them seemed outright unnecessary. For instance, I had no clue why Marvan as a character or his growing acceptance of his serial killer nature was essential to the book or the overall intended series.
Individually Nethmi, Eric, Dae Hyo, Marvan, and Krish’s stories were varying degrees of interesting. I was particularly fond of Eric because of how cocky his voice was. (I couldn’t resist the pun.) I sort of got the impression while reading that the author may have been trying to subvert certain epic fantasy character tropes (the noblewoman to be wed, the brave warrior, the farm boy with a magic destiny, etc.). This is where my lack of experience with “traditional” epic fantasy shows through because I wasn’t actually sure which elements of these tropes Levene subverted with these characters. Either that or I wasn’t invested enough in their stories to even notice.
I was also irked that there were only two female POVs out of seven total, and that women overall were noticeably absent from the story, sometimes strangely so. If the Tribes believe women are the key to their individual tribes’ survival because they are the bearers and teachers of necessary wisdom, how come there’s only one character in the entire book who’s a tribeswoman? (And she isn’t painted with too flattering a brush.)
Tonally and setting-wise, the book did feel like it fit into the grimdark tradition, sometimes too much so. (There’s only so many times we need to be told everything and everyone smells of sweat. WE GET IT. EVERYONE STINKS.) The world-building and mythology of the story is intriguing—my favorite parts of the book involved the worm men, and I am curious what Levene has planned for them in future books. Overall though, Smiler’s Fair feels firmly like a prologue instead of the first in a series. It sets the situation up and maneuvers various characters into place for the next book, where hopefully the conflict will begin in earnest. Otherwise, this book felt like it was arranging all the moving pieces for the “real” story to occur.
In the end, I didn’t enjoy reading Smiler’s Fair. And by the end of the book, one of the five main characters was dead and two of them I had stopped caring about. There’s some seeds of good world-building and some intriguing storytelling premises, but Smiler’s Fair did not deliver for me, and I won’t be continuing with the series.