Monday, 7 June 2010

Book Review: Nights of Villjamur by Mark Charan Newton

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"An ice age strikes a chain of islands, and thousands come to seek sanctuary at the gates of Villjamur: a city of ancient spires and bridges, a place where cultists use forgotten technology for their own gain and where, further out, the dead have been seen walking across the tundra.

"When the Emperor commits suicide, his elder daughter, Rika, is brought home to lead the Jamur Empire, but the sinister Chancellor plans to get rid of her and claim the throne for himself.

"Meanwhile, a senior investigator in the city inquisition must solve the high-profile and savage murder of a city politician, whilst battling evils within his own life, and a handsome and serial womaniser manipulates his way into the imperial residence with a hidden agenda.

"When reports are received that tens of thousands of citizens are dying in a bizarre genocide on the northern islands of the Empire, members of the elite Night Guard are sent to investigate. It seems that, in this land under a red sun, the long winter is bringing more than just snow..."


Hailed by great swathes of genre fans as the breakthrough fantasy debut of 2009, it's safe to say, I think, that a year on and with a sequel right around the corner, if you don't know Nights of Villjamur by name, you'll at least know it by reputation. Comparisons to the likes of Jack Vance, Mervyn Peake, Gene Wolfe and China Mieville have been bandied about in that time, perhaps by readers over-eager to burnish acclaim upon a novel that is indeed remarkable at times - particularly in its rich cultural Mecca of a setting - but in the end they do the first movement of The Legends of the Red Sun sequence no favours. Mark Charan Newton is an author of no uncertain talent, one to watch with a keen eye in the years to come, yet for all its initial verve and energy, for all its grand spectacle and seedy intrigue, Nights of Villjamur becomes something of a contrivance in its last act. It is a very good novel, make no mistake, but the unconvincing convenience of its final throes mean that it stops just short of being truly great.

Villjamur is a city under siege, crumbling from within and without. The bitter fingers of a long-heralded ice age have finally stiffened into cold, harsh reality: snow falls slick and incessant, the cobbled streets are paved with frost, while glaciers threaten to freeze the rivers surrounding the imperial city fast. And nature seems to conspire against humanity, for the ice age couldn't have come at a worse time. When the demented Emperor casts himself off a balcony, he throws the city into chaos: a council of cultists seize upon the opportunity, conjuring a war and a conspiracy out of thin air to facilitate their hunger for absolute power.

Nevertheless, Villjamur is better set than most cities under the red sun, and so thousands of refugees have come to the imperial capital seeking sanctuary from the worsening weather - only to be shunned as a disease-ridden pestilence. But there are some within the city who see through the council's claims, though they have their own affairs to deal with first. Cynical investigator Rumex Jeryd must discover the identity of a serial killer who stalks the city's streets, a smudge of blue paint their only calling card, while albino Brynd Lathaerea, commander of the Night Guard, is among the only survivors of his elite unit when they are set upon by an army of horrifying origins. And Randur Estevu, a dapper young man come from the islands of Folke to train the interim Stewardess of Villjamur in dance and swordsmanship, is not at all who he seems...

Brynd, Jeryd and Randur are all intriguing, if somewhat archetypal characters, and their respective perspectives on the events that unfold throughout Nights of Villjamur bestow a wealth of texture and context upon the pacy narrative Newton has to tell. Yet, for all their attraction, it is the city itself that is the star of the show. Villjamur is a place quite unlike any other, a veritable melting pot of cultures and creeds in which you feel anything and everything can - and often does - happen. Banshees wail to mark the passing of its many inhabitants, impoverished villagers clamour at its cruelly reinforced walls; long-lived and thick-skinned Rumels walk the streets alongside Villjamur's human populace while Garudas - bird-men who can only communicate through sign language - patrol its borders high in the snow-flecked sky. There are political machinations, rumblings of unrest, swordfights outside the citadel... this is a world ripe with strife where tension is at an all-time high and tempers invariably flare, the outcome of which is often spectacular.

And Newton can boast of more than a wonderfully well-realised world. His grasp on pace and plot alike is firm, his characters relatable and appealing, his voice - at least in terms of exposition and scene-setting - a cut above. Stylish and memorable, colourful and intelligent, the author herein arrays the stage with such props and people that early on you get the sense there is much more to be told than those events related in Nights of Villjamur alone. And so it is. The novel ends on a cliffhanger which offers little in the way of resolution, though it is difficult to be dissatisfied when the promise of what is to come is so great.

The last act, however, rather takes the edge off such excitement. Newton clearly has a grander plan at hand that depends on certain characters being in specific places by the end of Nights of Villjamur, but rather than allow them to find their way forward naturally, he forces their hands. The last hundred pages of Newton's novel are an unfortunately unruly affair wherein the narrative takes such sudden turns as to beggar belief and characters act completely out of character for the sake of convenience. People we understand to be clever and considered are conspicuously stupid when it suits; internal logic takes a backseat to what we must understand as narrative necessity. Rather than building towards a climax as powerful as it is inevitable, Nights of Villjamur seems to explode into a morass of quick-fire confusion before ending - abruptly at that.

That aside - and when it comes to it, it's easy to put paid to such concerns - the first novel of The Legends of the Red Sun makes for a tremendous start to a series that one imagines will only improve from here on out. When it works, which is to say the vast majority of the time, it works wonders. Villjamur and the greater Boreal Archipelago are a truly individual fantasy landscape for a surprising and sophisticated narrative unrestrained by traditional tropes populated by a diverse cast of characters near enough the equal of the unforgettable world which they inhabit. The scene is set for great things, I do not doubt. And though the great things within Nights of Villjamur are somewhat diminished by its awkward last throes, there is every reason to think that Mark Charon Newton might yet join the illustrious ranks of the very fantasy greats to whom he has been compared.


Nights of Villjamur
by Mark Charan Newton
June 2009, Tor UK

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