REVIEW: The Storm Beneath the World by Michael R. Fletcher

In Michael R. Fletcher‘s The Storm Beneath the World we get another full-swing-warhammer-to-the-chest of Fletcher’s wild imagination. In a world made up of insect queendoms living and warring on the backs of million-year-old creature-countries floating above the firestorm below, where to discover one has magical powers is to become a dangerous corrupt and rejected from society no matter the station you were born in to, we are treated to a wild ride through the eyes of a diverse group of ashkaro (insect characters) as they discover their world may come to an end amongst the chaos of their own changing lives.

In The Storm Beneath the World five-name bright Ahk is the future of the hive. There are responsibilities awaiting her, though while all of her mentors and betters keep telling her that, she’s not sure what they actually are. The one-name dull Joh–whose father is an alcoholic and a drug addic–is the bottom of the barrel of society. He constantly fears the beatings from his father, and then one night, his father doesn’t come home. Wex is about as well off as a dull-carapaced female can be through her family’s job at the brickworks. One day she starts seeing gaps in people’s defences–their weaknesses–and discovers her corrupt power. Shan the royal nephew is a waste of space. He preens and polishes his carapace, looks pretty, and doesn’t achieve much else; as a male, his best hope is to find a powerful, dangerous female to marry who is worthy of his five-name station. When he burns a female who was trying to kill him to ashes, however, his life is turned upside down.

Fletcher uses this upper, lower, and middle class cast as a way to tell an excellent story from a range of perspectives, with his characters born into their station but thrown from their normal lives collectively and into danger. These starting points help showcase their different life problems, and the way those problems change when your station no longer matters, or how you can use that old station as a tactic when needed (noting that their stations are often first judged by how shiny their shell / carapace is). As always, one of my favourite parts of Fletcher’s writing is the way he writes situational perspective between point-of-view characters. I love the way he uses perspective to sometimes about-face the story you think is coming for an awesome twist, and other times just feed you a laugh-out-loud line. Oftentimes, it’s both, and it’s a big part of the reason I will keep picking up whatever he publishes.

As it’s a Fletcher book, we also need to talk about the magic system. One of the things I love in his works is that there is always a brutal cost to magic. In Beyond Redemption it was madness, and again in this book we see that the cost is a form of madness—though not a delusion of grandeur so much as a forgetfulness to live as the addiction of one’s magic makes them forget to eat and sleep as they are lost to the lure. The pleasure reaction to using magic–which drives the addiction to magic in much the same way a drug does–also drives use of magic, and therefore its use becomes an ongoing balance of needing to survive versus the shortening of your life as either society spikes your brain or you lose yourself to the lure.

Fletcher also plays with gender norms in fiction, with the use of the insect world for characters flipping the script with females being the stronger, faster, more aggressive warrior caste, and the males being mostly relegated to either dumb labour or pretty trophies. There are plenty of nods throughout to reverse-fridging and other tropes female characters have been historically subjected to for the creation of impetus of their male characters, and I quite enjoyed this reversal aspect of it.

The Storm Beneath the World is a thoroughly enjoyable book that grimdark fantasy fans should get a huge kick out of. The perspective play is on point, the magic system is in turns wildly inventive and incredibly brutal, and the world Fletcher has created is just plain old freaking awesome. Mash them together and you have story worth sinking your mandibles in to.

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Adrian Collins

Adrian Collins

Adrian Collins runs Grimdark Magazine and loves anything to do with telling darker stories. Doesn't matter the format, or when it was published or produced--just give him a grim story told in a dark world by a morally grey protagonist and this bloke's in his happy place. Add in a barrel aged stout to sip on after a cheeky body surf under the Australian sun, and that's his heaven.