Jess Hyslop, Miasma (Luna Novella #16). Luna Press Publishing, 2022. Pp. 108. ISBN 978-1-915556-01-1. $11.99 pb/$5.99 e.
Reviewed by Zachary Gillan
Jess Hyslop’s Miasma is a book that I wish had been around when I was younger. It’s a novella that would have fit nicely in the fantasy works of the 1990s that I spent my teenage years reading, but with a revisionist approach. It takes a variety of elements any reader of secondary world fantasies will recognize—knights, mages, monstrous lizards, a dangerous swamp—and reworks them into something fresh for the 2020s. Part of Luna Press’s novella series, Miasma clocks in at just under 100 pages, but Hyslop doesn’t waste any of them, wisely choosing not to pad this out to a standard novel length. It has a story and it tells it, directly, forthrightly, with well-drawn human stakes. There’s no saving the world, no prophecies or chosen ones, just a family trying to survive.
Nereus, the child protagonist of Miasma, lives with his mother just outside an encroaching poison swamp. Those exposed to the swamp’s toxic air fall ill and either turn into feral “malignants” or survive as disfigured mages. When his mother falls ill, Nereus has to summon help from one of the latter. He’s grown up disgusted with them but enamored with the cataphracts of the Citadel, lizard-riders who brutally hunt down malignants. It probably isn’t spoiling too much to say that when he finally gets to meet one, they don’t live up to his expectations. The narrative arc of the novella is tied to Nereus’s coming-of-age journey, anchored tightly to him as protagonist and first-person narrator. Notably, he isn’t just growing into finding acceptance, as is so common the case with young fantasy protagonists, but into being accepting.
The real star of Miasma (to me, at any rate) is the titular swamp, a stain upon the landscape rendered in evocative, atmospheric prose, and the most visible expression of the theme of disfigurement that runs throughout. If I have one major criticism, it’s that the swamp seems to function early on as a metaphor for climate change (“It advances,” the mage solemnly announces upon seeing its current boundaries), but this interesting thread doesn’t really factor in to the later stages of the book. It is, I think, a victim of the narrative’s tight focus on the family’s immediate dilemma, Nereus’s own coming-of-age taking the narrative center stage. Certain developments and revelations late in the book do hint toward some further avenues of exploring the metaphor of this spreading Wrongness, but aren’t resolved here.
That isn’t to say, though, that Hyslop doesn’t make excellent use of the swamp in the narrative that is here. The swamp disfigures the land, its miasma disfigures mages and malignants, and the violent code of the cataphracts leads to predictable moral disfigurement on their part. Nereus’s discomfort with the unsightly saturates his early narrative. The novella opens with him losing his nerve when the mage first arrives without her guild’s customary mask, which provides both protection from the swamp and a cosmetic veil. The contact with the swamp that lends mages their powers also leaves them with blackened veins traced under patchy green skin, with “tremulous hands and hunched shoulders.” This is in sharp contrast to the cataphract, summoned by a jealous neighbor suspicious of their contact with the swamp, whose all-encompassing armor appears majestic but inhuman. Masks and obscurant helms litter the book—Nereus and his mother own a forbidden one, and it’s his use of it that leads to his mother’s sickness and the events of the book. The cataphract, whose immediate resorting to violence drives the climax of the book, has a helm that mirrors his dreadful lizard mount.
In a genre beset with work that never bothers thinking any deeper than “greenskins bad,” it’s quite easy to imagine a work told from the cataphract’s point of view, bringing righteous violence down on twisted monsters. Rather than falling into fantasy’s far-too-common approach of unthinking, reactive violence, Miasma portrays its victims doing their best to escape it. This revisionist approach, combined with the atmospheric setting, elevate what could have been a simple YA fantasy into something really refreshing.