Thursday, June 04, 2009

Review: Nights of Villjamur by Mark Charan Newton

Every year, a few new releases receive what is simply an insane amount of buzz in the on-line SFF blogging community of which I am a part. Nights of Villjamur is the big-press debut for Mark Charan Newton and a strong contender for what may be the most buzz this year (US, UK, Canada, IndieBound). The blogs and other review sites are ablaze with seemingly overwhelmingly positive reaction. This is both deserved and troubling with Nights of Villjamur being a strong debut in the world of epic fantasy, but ultimately not the outstanding work the blogger buzz proclaims.

The Jamur Empire faces a threat it cannot fight, but only endure. A pending ice age that will cover the land, destabilize the empire and threaten the survival of its people. Long anticipated, the ice age is now arriving at time when the emperor suffers from paranoid insanity and an outlawed religion has taken over the ruling Council with one Chancellor’s ambitions threatening. The story itself follows a few individuals – an inspector and his assistant as they investigate a string of murders, a prostitute with possible ties to the murders, a womanizing young man instructing the emperor’s daughter in dance and swordplay, an ambitious Chancellor, an immortal cultist and his rival, and the commander of the elite Night Guard. The focus is the great and ancient city of Villjamur, home to hundreds of thousands of people, other sentient creatures, and magical relics of antiquity.

Nights of Villjamur is cerebral fantasy. This isn’t a story of great magic (though there is some), this isn’t a story of battles (though there are a few), this isn’t a traditional epic adventure (though it could be argued) – it is the story a few individuals living in tumultuous times and their key roles in how events unfold. The story of develops at a metered pace, without the action that prevails in traditional fantasy writing. Newton concentrates on a few characters and creates a framework to work within. In this respect, Nights of Villjamur reads like an extended prologue at times, with much of the book devoted to setting up setting up the dominos, with the inevitable push creating the chain reaction of domino falling into domino not occurring until near the end. With the falling only just begun, Nights of Villjamur is the clear beginning of The Legends of the Red Sun series, with four planned books, and Newton’s hints of a greater mulitverse with endless potential for more.

Newton’s character driven narrative is both the greatest strength and greatest weakness of Nights of Villjamur. Characters created feel real, with actual flaws rather than a forced ‘grayness’ of character. Inspector Jeryd, being a non-human rumel, often reveals keen observations of humanity while the marital troubles of his personal life interfere with his investigation of murders within the ruling Council. Commander Brynd commands the military forces of the Jamur Empire, and specifically the elite Night Guard. With undeniable competence and a position of power and importance, Brynd remains an outsider due in part to his being an albino, but in even greater part due to the secrets of his private life – his homosexuality which could result in a death sentence if discovered. These two characters drive the narrative and the interest of the reader – it’s through their eyes that city and peoples of Villjamur and lands of the Empire come alive.

With the success of Jeryd and Brynd, it’s unfortunate that the other supporting characters whose points of view the reader follows don’t work. The greatest offender is the clichéd Randur, a womanizing thief and expert swordsman from an exotic conquered land who weasels his way into the imperial palace. The greater offense is not the cliché but the unconvincing motivation that drives him – the need to save his dying mother through the magical intervention of a cultist and his ancient technology. Newton obviously has important plans for Randur’s future in the books, but failed to find a way to properly introduce him and his motivations. Regrettably other inconsistencies and unconvincing motivations interfered with my enjoyment and the credibility of the story.

Nights of Villjamur falls squarely into the dying-earth subgenre, one that I’m sadly under-read in. The Jamur Empire is threatened by a coming ice-age, one that has long been known about, but unsurprisingly not well prepared for. The Jamur Empire itself is the lesser evolution of a long history of more advanced civilizations while the world’s red sun slowly fades overhead. In our world where global warming is an unaddressed reality, I was anxious to see what Newton would do with his world of impending doom from climate change – albeit an ice age rather than global warming. As someone who follows Newton’s blog, I was expecting something more – I was expecting more parallels and at least something of a condemnation of our world’s lack of action. The result felt like a missed opportunity where the impending ice age is little more than background information and a convenient way for people to walk across frozen water ways…unless I’m missing an allegory of an army of cross-dimensional, deadly bug-man creatures and global climate change.

Nights of Villjamur is a story of a fading empire, impending war, political intrigue, a coming ice age, a magical quest, wrapped in the inevitability of life and death. It’s a story told from the point of view of characters that live their lives as best they can in hard times. The writing, while intelligent, suffers at times from the inability to live up to its aspirations and remain consistent. Mark Charan Newton is a new voice to the world of fantasy literature and in spite of the unevenness of Nights of Villjamur, The Legends of the Red Sun series shows a potential that I intend to follow-up on. 7/10

3 comments:

Janet said...

Interesting, insightful review. Thanks.

Liviu said...

I disagree with the assessment "not the outstanding work" - I read the book 3 times, 2 times on recieving the pdf review copy and once now on getting the hc and I still find new things of interest - the choice of names, the choice of some scenes evolution...

There are some warts (the balance between the threads could be a bit better) but this is a much deeper novel than most fantasies; though truly it is sfnal, comparable to Gene Wolfe (New, Long, Short) Sun series and Jack Vance Dying Earth, but more accessible than the first and more up to date than the second.

For now it is my second fantasy of 09 (after Corambis) and I have a feeling that the sequel which already shot up to my most expected fantasy of late 09 (arc), 10 (book) will be even better

Neth said...

-Janet, thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed it.

-Liviu

Well, opinions differ. I do think that it was deeper fantasy than most and had a very intellectual feel about it. I think this actually led to more disappointment - there was such potential with this novel, but inconsistencies in the world building and more importantly, in his character's motivations took away a lot from it.

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