This review is based upon the assumption that you’ve read Nights of Villjamur, the first book in this series. If you haven’t I think you’re missing out on some of the most groundbreaking urban fantasy currently gracing the bookshelves.
Check out my interview with Mark Charan Newton.
So, part deux. Like Newton’s previous volume, this is a delightfully full and complex story–actually, make that stories–that reveals more than ever about the world he has created while leaving plenty for the next book. There’s the return of some personal favourites and a host of new characters to get your teeth into, as well as a whole new city to explore. Lastly, there is also some of the most surprising twists and turns that I’ve ever come across in anything I’ve ever read. Ever. I’m still undecided as to whether or not it’s a good thing.
Let’s open all that up, shall we?
This book has a much darker tone than the previous volume. It’s also clear from his writing that Newton, having got past his first book jitters, feels liberated. I really thought his first book was groundbreaking, but it seems he was waiting to find his mark…no pun intended, before really going for it. For me it’s the darker elements of the stories, told with a certain visceral relish, that speaks most clearly of his newfound freedom of expression.
The central story is that of the fate of Villiren, a city on the soon-to-be frontline of a war with the strange, aggressive, and previously unknown creatures introduced in book one. Within that setting (and again Newton has made the city a character by itself), there are a wealth of tales being spun. Brynd, commander of the Night Guard, is desperately trying to prepare Villiren for a war of unprecedented scale in the face of the city’s apparent apathy, while Investigator Rumex Jeryd is scouring the streets to solve the spate of disappearances that no one else seems to care about. And, in the all too busy underworld, two street gangs continue to look to their own interests, apparently in utter indifference to the fate of their city.
The tension builds steadily in the first half, and I found the emotional and highly charged atmosphere of a city on the brink of war hard to tolerate. In fact, there were times where I was simply too tired or tense to carry on reading and had to put the book down and pick up something lighter like War & Peace. Don’t mistake that for a criticism; it is very high praise indeed. Furthermore, the relationships described in the book call upon powerful emotions that only add to the tension.
As an existential psychotherapist in my other life, I find an unmistakable vein of significant emotional intelligence running all through Newton’s writing that really appeals to me. Malum, the leader of a powerful gang with some real bite, and his potentially violent and difficult relationship with Beami, an up and coming Cultist with secrets of her own. Commander Brynd Lathraea, his socially unacceptable sexual proclivity and the paradox with his public role as a leader of the most respected soldiers in the Empire. These examples and more besides demonstrates a rare measure of insight into relationships, which, when you think about it, really cuts to the heart of what makes a good novel.
Another thread continued from Nights of Villjamur is that of Randur Estevu and the usurped Empress and her sister. It is here that the greatest revelations of Newton’s world are brought to light. In their story he strains the boundaries of fantasy and seems to dance a few steps in the realm of science fiction. Newton also reveals a large chunk of the cosmology of his world with a suddenness that really caught me by surprise with both its implications and its scope. Newton is clearly very aware of this, as a powerful and otherworldly new character’s ship is called the Exmachina, a pun that gave me endless amusement, while Randur’s feelings of being overwhelmed by the revelations very neatly matched my own. My more puritanical propensities regarding the boundaries between SF and fantasy took a bit of a beating in this book, but despite some lingering ambivalence I think Newton has pulled off a real coup. It seems that the twain can meet without bringing the walls down.
The second half of the book focuses upon the battle for Villiren, and here we are plunged into a most brutal and bloody conflict that kept me reading for hours until the last page was turned. For me the real stars of the battle were a band of three, Lone Gunmen style, cultists and the magical help they bring to bear in defence of the city. They were just so engaging and disarming in their enthusiasm that I couldn’t help but be drawn in by them.
The battle scenes are fast flowing and really action packed, with some good old fashioned blood and guts–though also with some very original twists, as appears to be Newton’s way. I enjoyed the sense of the greater ebb and flow of the battle combined with the nitty gritty details of the fights. However, be warned, this is not a war without personal cost. Some favourites of mine bit the dust, and it wasn’t an easy thing. I know it’s part of life and must therefore be part of fiction, and the suddenness of some of the deaths were, I think, really meant to convey the brutality of war and did so with aplomb; but I couldn’t help but feel that it was a little excessive. In truth, it really wasn’t when you consider the scale of the battle, but such was my attachment to the characters that their demise felt over the top in abruptness.
My feeling is that this book has fulfilled the promise of Nights of Villjamur while simultaneously raising the stakes for the next in the series. I found it very readable, thoroughly entertaining and equally challenging. All in all, a must read!
One small postscript for my fellow arachnophobes, a warning if you will: Don’t read this when going to bed, assuming, of course, that you want to sleep….
This book review is proving to be a real challenge. Mark Charan Newton has penned a book so rich that trying to do justice to its many themes, characters and story arcs is taxing my writing ability in a whole new way. In fact, it’s akin to trying to review five separate but connected novels simultaneously.
By now I suspect you’ve guessed my conclusion: it is a masterpiece of the genre. Let me try and tell you why I experienced it that way.
What I found most astonishing while reading the book is that it’s Newton’s first major novel. The creative risks he takes in the story, as well as the complexity and depth of the world he’s created, are reminicsent of an experienced author with many a novel to his or her credit. This is a fantasy novel by and large, but make no mistake, this isn’t the family-friendly fantasy of Tolkien. The themes explored are far darker and grittier than most fantasy to which I’ve been exposed, and his characters often use the sort of language that we might hear everyday in our own worlds rather than the pseudo-classical tone adopted by many fantasy authors. And yet for all its darkness, the story is interspersed with truly touching and very powerful moments of connection between characters that, at least briefly, push back the encroaching shadows.
I’m getting carried away; first and foremost let me try and summarise the story…stories for you. The book follows the fortunes of, by my count, seven major protagonists and a host of supporting characters as the city of Villjamur struggles with the death of its mad ruler amidst the spreading panic of an approaching ice age. To be fair to Newton, I’m trying to be strict in judging who’s a major or minor character, and I’m fairly sure that those who’ve already read the book might well disagree with my take. Each of the main protagonists is worthy of a novel to themselves, and while the book weighs in at a very respectable 479 pages, I finished it in the sort of time frame that I would normally take on a much shorter book. I quite literally couldn’t put it down.
As I mentioned above, the degree of depth in his world is remarkable. The ‘magic’ of ancient technology harnessed both for good and evil, a variety of very different species whose individuality stands out from the ‘variations-on-a-human’ common to other speculative genres, and, perhaps most strikingly, a city that came across as a character in her own right. (This raises my count of major protagonists to eight.) In addition the setting of his stories on a dying world adds another intruiging dimension to each story individually and contains perhaps a subtle critique of our own attitudes to the environment and our limited resources. Furthermore, Newton is in no hurry to dump all the details of his world upon you, though I suspect that the temptation was considerable in the context of just how developed that world is. He will often leave you wondering for a while before revealing the vocabulary, subtler meanings and shades of his world. This can be irritating when you have little else to focus on, but in this novel is never a problem.
The stories weave in and out of one another, though often without actually touching, from the Inquisitor’s murder investigation and discovery of corruption to one young fop’s quest to salve his guilt by bargaining with arcane powers for his mother’s life. Some of the characters are brought together during the book to great effect, and Newton also plants the suggestion of possible alliances for future installments. It’s certainly clear that this is book one of a series. To the best of my knowledge, this book is the first of four.
Despite the aforementioned complexity of the novel, I did not at any point feel overwhelmed by the number of characters or plotlines, as one or two reviewers have remarked they did. Newton’s characters, from the least on up, are so memorable and distinct that even after a significant absence, as the author turns the narrative spotlight elsewhere, I found myself able to return to them without needing a reminder.
Special mention must be made of one protagonist in particular. This isn’t to say that he’s necessarily my favourite, but even I recognised the genius inherent in writing such a character. I’m referring to Brynd, leader of the Night Guard – the Emperor’s personal bodyguards. He hides his homosexuality behind the mask of his albinism in order to survive in a world that forbids his sexual proclivity. Most tellingly he also struggles with the paradox of being in so manly a calling in a world that would consider him anything but, were they to know. What a creative, fascinating way of exploring so contemporary a theme and in such a compelling character!
Newton does include one fairly graphic sex scene with Brynd which has been the cause of some controversy. I for one am not a big fan of graphic sex scenes, gay or hetero, in the SciFi/Fantasy novels I read. While I agree that any novel including sentient characters of any species must explore sex, I feel that there’s something to be said for leaving the details to the imagination. The literary equivalent of the camera panning away as the lovers get down to business, for example.
In my reviews I try as far as is possible to describe the book and my experience of it without giving the game away. This is often quite difficult, but here it has been a mixed blessing. I couldn’t possibly summarise the wealth of plots and subplots without regurgitating the book in its entirety. On the other hand, I worry that I’ve been unable to convey the richness of this particular novel.
In conclusion this book has my strongest recommendation. Not just for it’s entertainment value, which is considerable, but equally for its glut of thought-provoking and even challenging tales in the richest and most original setting the fantasy world has seen for a while.
…Oh, and one other thing. Am I the only one who thinks that this world would make an awesome roleplaying game setting? Just a thought….