Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Book Review | The Book of Transformations by Mark Charan Newton

Buy this book from

A new and corrupt Emperor seeks to rebuild the ancient structures of Villjamur to give the people of the city hope in the face of great upheaval and an oppressing ice age. But when a stranger called Shalev arrives, empowering a militant underground movement, crime and terror becomes rampant.

The Inquisition is always one step behind, and military resources are spread thinly across the Empire. So Emperor Urtica calls upon cultists to help construct a group to eliminate those involved with the uprising, and calm the populace. But there’s more to The Villjamur Knights than just phenomenal skills and abilities - each have a secret that, if exposed, could destroy everything they represent.

Investigator Fulcrom of the Villjamur Inquisition is given the unenviable task of managing the Knights’, but his own skills are tested when a mysterious priest, who has travelled from beyond the fringes of the Empire, seeks his help. The priest’s existence threatens the church, and his quest promises to unweave the fabric of the world.

And in a distant corner of the Empire, the enigmatic cultist Dartun Súr steps back into this world, having witnessed horrors beyond his imagination. Broken, altered, he and the remnants of his cultist order are heading back to Villjamur. And all eyes turn to the Sanctuary City, for Villjamur’s ancient legends are about to be shattered...


Has ever the world needed a hero as much as it does today?

It certainly seems that way. With yet another summer in cinema packed to the rafters with blockbuster comic book adaptations and - few and far between them - original creations to champion now behind us, the notion that we are living in a new golden age for the superhero gains markedly more credence with every passing season.

Of course, as it was, so shall it ever be, and indeed, there's always been a hero or heroes of some description in every species of fiction for as long as there's been fiction; in every form and in every genre, to one extent or another, the hero has his place - his place, or hers - yet only rarely is this commonality examined in any depth. Few texts truly engage with what it means to be a hero: with what costs there are; what sacrifices the hero must make, whether for the greater good or some less selfless intent; and ultimately what good is wrought by heroism, and which ills. With the third novel in The Legends of the Red Sun series, Nottingham novelist and self-professed whisky aficionado Mark Charan Newton does exactly that... asks and to varying degrees answers these very questions, and in so doing illuminates an aspect of narrative so wholly subsumed that one does not often stop to consider it.

The Book of Transformations' agenda is foregrounded from the get-go. "This was no time to be a hero," it begins. "Under the multi-coloured banners of the sanctuary city of Villjamur, under the reign of a new emperor, and amidst a bitter northerly wind reaching far through the knotted streets, something was about to start." (p.1) Namely, an uprising. For Villjamur has long been a city cleaved by class, with "the refugees outside the city gates starving and uncared for, the Cavesiders below, oppressed and desperate, fighting for equality and their right to live. Villjamur - a city where the needs are the many are ignored for the comfort of the few." (p.236) But now the many have a hero, equal parts Robin Hood and Guy Fawkes. She calls herself Shalev, and she means to transform the impoverished proletariat into an army fit to dethrone the new emperor, Urtica (same as the old emperor) and so forth disrupt the power structure that has held forth in Villjamur since before it was Villjamur.

However, if the working man has his hero, then so too must the more monied. And never a class to be outdone, why stop at just the one when it is as easy to engineer three? Thus the Villjamur Knights are not born but made; “manufactured” (p.150) by cultists under the emperor's thumb to raise morale and alleviate various anxieties amongst the upper-crust. Oh, and purportedly to protect the innocent too... though it is not long before the Knights come to wonder who in this world is truly innocent, anyway.

Of these three Council-sponsored heroes - Lan and Tane and Vuldon - the lattermost pair are rendered, I fear, rather simplistically. Essentially Catman and The Incredible Bulk, Tane is a bad-mannered cad seeking from his new role redemption, if he seeks anything at all, while Vuldon is "The Legend fading into legend," (p.199) an old-timer and former vigilante long since fallen from grace. Only Lan is more than the sum of her parts; assuredly Newton spends a great deal longer establishing and embellishing her character than he does with either of the other Knights. With are with Lan, come to that, in advance of either of her transformations, for before she becomes a hero, she must first become herself.

As to that, the sheer volume of talk amongst the community built like ramparts around genre fiction in advance of The Book of Transformations' release painted the text as progressive in a way I am unconvinced that it is, in the final summation; at least no more than is usual for a new novel by Mark Charan Newton. Needless to say, Lan is a transgender woman: biologically a man when she is introduced, some kindly cultists shortly offer her their expertise, and though this sequence in particular - wherein Lan is whisked away to a secret island idyll for her first and foremost transformation - is among the most memorable of all those chronicled in the third volume of The Legends of the Red Sun, I do not know that thereafter Newton digs more than superficially into the myriad issues raised.

Certainly one must be mindful to discuss such questions respectfully, when one discusses them at all - and I wholeheartedly commend the author for his willingness in this sense - but I dare say Newton treads too lightly across this territory, otherwise largely unexplored in even fantasy, a genre perfectly poised to tackle such difficult issues whether by way of allegory or fantasy’s inherent exoticism. Cautiously and self-consciously he vouchsafes perspectives on Lan's gender and sexuality both black and white, yet very rarely grey: Lan is either a good person, true to herself, and that’s all that matters, or a “weird bitch” (p.339) in dire need of a good stabbing. Had Newton dared to muddy the waters some, I expect those boundaries that he breaches in The Book of Transformations may have had a more lasting effect on the larger landscape, and doubtless more import in terms of this particular narrative.

Nevertheless, Lan is blow for blow the most interesting character in all The Legends of the Red Sun to date. From her aforementioned physiological ambiguities to her latter-day role as a sock-puppet hero, and from the mystery of her benefactors to her easy-does-it romantic entanglement with another of Newton's narrators - for alas, returning from Nights of Villjamur and its successor City of Ruin in a more substantial capacity comes Investigator Fulcrom, a wet blanket if ever there was one in this series - Lan is assaulted on all sides by conflicts large and small which work as one to instil in her chapters a sense of momentum, and meaning. She is too imbued with a certain authority, of which there is a woeful lack in The Legends of the Red Sun's extended cast as I recall it; admittedly a spineless lot. Thus, those judgements she makes and those decisions she takes feel both meaningful and in line with the internal logic Newton establishes for her character, such as to cast The Book of Transformations' other primary protagonist in somewhat stark relief.

Next to Lan, Fulcrom – a pallid, incompetent Professor X to the Knights’ superhero trio – seems a squib, unconvincing and indecisive at the best of times and at the worst, little more than an overwrought, moping mouthpiece for the author’s own opinions. This, I think, is an unfortunate legacy for The Book of Transformations to have inherited from its predecessors. Lan is a bold step forward, after all, away from the transparent characters and perfunctory plot threads that served to undermine various aspects Nights of Villjamur and City of Ruin, but Fulcrom paces only backwards.

Nor, disappointingly, does Newton give Shalev more dimensions than just the one. Objectively speaking, she seems more an advocate of the greater good than any of the three government-sponsored puppets, yet but for a token allowance – very occasional chapters in the company of Caley, a young Caveside troublemaker – the reader’s allegiances are guided to be in in line with the Knights rather than Villjamur's very own Spartacus, who at one point declares, against her own modus operandi, that her legion of devotees should get their murder on, quick-smart like... to which horrific proclamation no-one really bats an eye (see p.161).

The Book of Transformations has its problems, then: several hopelessly ineffectual characters, moments where Newton’s apparent need for immediate progression rails violently against the internal logic he has only just established, and a tale about heroes and heroism which - though appealing, and powerful in its way - serves to obscure, if not entirely obfuscate the larger narrative in play through The Legends of the Red Sun: of a high fantasy kingdom set to by ghastly, Mieville-esque monsters from a separate but connected plane of existence. In that sense, short the last act – when all at once it all comes together, and not before time – The Book of Transformations seems a digression in the grander scheme of this purported quartet; a break from the pressing business at hand.

And perhaps that was the point. City of Ruin, for all its saving graces, was in many respects a retread of Nights of Villjamur; The Book of Transformations, meanwhile, stands apart from either volume, and though it suffers from problems of its own in addition to an assortment of issues lamentably inherited from the earlier novels of The Legends of the Red Sun, by clearing away some of the lustrous clutter billowing about this world like all the Boreal Archipelago’s litter, Newton is able to hone in on a story that stands well enough on its own, underpinned by a situation ably established in the erstwhile. This foundation gives rises to some particularly gripping elements of narrative and moreover characters – specifically Lan – that are resonant in and of themselves; heroes of their own penny dreadfuls.

The Book of Transformations, then, is the calm before the storm – and if the monumental last act is any sort of indicator, what a storm it’s set to be! But what comes next is not now the point, the whole point and nothing but the point. And there is, I think, a great deal to be said for that.


The Book of Transformations
by Mark Charan Newton

UK Publication: June 2011, Tor

Buy this book from

Recommended and Related Reading


  1. Great review - very fair and balanced. I've read a lot of good and bad about this book. I'd cut off my right arm to get a copy of it, but I don't think it will be released in the US for quite some time. Oh well.

  2. Maybe save your right arm, Sarah... isn't that what The Book Depository does anyway? Or do they only ship US books to the UK for free, and not vice versa?

    In any event The Book of Transformations is well worth your time. I didn't love it whole hog, but even at its weakest it's a good bit of back bacon.

    As to exactly why the veggie is suddenly talking about meat, I couldn't possibly comment.