Friday, 11 June 2010

Book Review: City of Ruin by Mark Charan Newton

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"Villiren: a city of sin that is being torn apart from the inside. Hybrid creatures shamble through shadows and barely human gangs fight turf wars for control of the streets.

"Amidst this chaos, Commander Brynd Lathraea, commander of the Night Guard, must plan the defence of Viliren against a race that has broken through from some other realm and already slaughtered hundreds of thousands of the Empire's people.

"When a Night Guard soldier goes missing, Brynd requests help from the recently arrived Inquisitor Jeryd. He discovers this is not the only disapearance the streets of Villiren. It seems that a serial killer of the most horrific kind is on the loose, taking hundreds of people from their own homes. A killer that cannot possibly be human.

"The entire population of Villiren must unite to face an impossible surge of violent and unnatural enemies or the city will fall. But how can anyone save a city that is already a ruin?"


For centuries, the traditional greeting between strangers and passing acquaintances across the length and breadth of the Boreal archipelago has been a respectful utterance of "Sele of Jamur," but the time of the Jamur empire has passed, and it did not go quietly into the good night. The Emperor is dead - long live the new Emperor, Urtica, a power-hungry former councilor whose machinations have driven the rightful heirs into exile; a door has opened to another world from which pour countless legions of alien creatures with dark designs on the denizens of a city already on brought to its knees by crime and corruption. Brynd Lathraea, Commander of the Night Guard, arrives in Villiren to organise a last-ditch defense against an impossible force only to find its populace unmoved by their impending extinction, while Inquisitor Rumex Jeryd, another newcomer, finds himself caught up in a disturbing serial murder investigation. But because people don't know what to say to one another, who to trust, no-one's saying anything, and the bodies start to pile up. It is a time of unrest, a time of war... and the end has only just begun.

Nearly a year to the day since Nights of Villjamur, rising star Mark Charan Newton returns to the world he painted so memorably in the first book of The Legends of the Red Sun with a sequel which outdoes that breakthrough fantasy in almost every sense. And that's saying something. We're talking about a book which attracted great acclaim from all comers here; an author whose fledgling efforts have seen him compared with a who's-who of genre greats. An unfortunately contrived last act somewhat dampened my own enthusiasm for Nights of Villjamur: an overabundance of convenient twists and characters acting against the internal logic Newton had established for them meant that I came away from it thinking... good, yes, absolutely - but truly great? Not quite.

Nevertheless, you have to allow for a little awkwardness in the opening acts of such grand sagas as The Legends of the Red Sun promises to be, and whatever its failings, Nights of Villjamur hinted at some incredible things to come. City of Ruin, I'm pleased to say, delivers on near enough every one of its predecessor's promises. Its characters act in character for the duration; their dialogue is snappier and significantly smoother; the action is bigger, better and more satisfying by all accounts; and the grand scheme of this ambitious quintet is revealed at last, to tremendous effect.

The first lesson City of Ruin teaches readers is to expect the unexpected. Though far from its only flourish, the titular setting of Nights of Villjamur was surely its greatest strength: a grand and subversive imperial capital alive with spectacle and intrigue. Having constructed such a fantastic canvas for the epic movements of The Legends of the Red Sun to take place upon, you might presume Newton would return to Villjamur in City of Ruin, yet the action herein takes place in another location entirely: a seething city on the very fringes of the Empire's grasp where gangs rule the roost. In and of itself, Villiren is not quite the equal of Villjamur, but the author broadens his focus still further to take in the larger landscape of the Boreal archipelago, and together with the crumbling city, the world is a more vibrant and fascinating place than before. Indeed, it is a dying earth, a motif only alluded to in Nights of Villjamur which pushes through the crowded irens and bustling frontlines to the fore in book two.

You get the distinct sense, in fact, that Newton has let loose his imagination in City of Ruin. From a cave-monster made of coins to a floating island a la Hayao Miyazaki through a great behemoth on the battlefield amalgamated from fallen bodies, the set-pieces here seem weirder and more wonderful than any in book one of The Legends of the Red Sun. Newton has spoken of how his creative wings were clipped during the composition of Nights of Villjamur, and commercially speaking I suppose the restraint makes a certain amount of sense. Herein, however, having achieved that mainstream success, he spreads them far and wide, and it's a joy to behold. City of Ruin is darker, harder and more dramatic than its predecessor. Those issues Newton had to tiptoe around before he addresses head-on this time, and it's a breath of fresh air to see a genre that so often shies away from the genuinely relevant questions of our age in favour of counterpoints abstracted by imagination deal with the likes of homophobia, domestic abuse, corruption and poverty.

City of Ruin is a big book of big ideas and big issues. It's fun and it's frank, difficult yet easy to swallow. It takes all the good of Nights of Villjamur and makes it great, whilst relegating the majority of that novel's problems to the farthest margins. There's still little clunk from time to time - a "dead corpse" is the worst expository offender, and a few allusions to the work of Jack Vance and China Mieville are so blunt as to take you out of the experience - but overwhelmingly, book two of The Legends of the Red Sun is a roundly more rewarding and polished endeavour than its predecessor. City of Ruin stands as a sterling example of modern epic fantasy with a twist of the new old weird that realises the incredible potential of Mark Charan Newton's earlier work with style, panache and glorious imagination.


City of Ruin
by Mark Charan Newton
June 2010, Tor UK

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