Nights of Villjamur by Mark Charan Newton
(Legends of the Red Sun, Book 1)
Published by TOR (UK), June 2009 (ARC copy received)
Review by Mark Yon
Imagine a book that reads like Joe Abercrombie, set in a Jack Vance-like Dying Earth and written with characters the equal of Moorcock and Mieville. Too good to be true? This book might just meet your expectations.
The novel is mainly set in Villjamur, an enormous city, set on a world where the weak red sun heralds the coming of a decades-long Ice Age.
Amidst such a widescreen vista there is a pleasing range of memorable characters. Brynd Lathraea, an albino commander of the Emperor’s elite Night Guard, is a hero of this tale. Ambiguous in attitude and sexuality, his mettle is tested when Emperor Johynn commits suicide and he is set the task of maintaining order in a rapidly changing world and retrieving the Emperor’s heir, the eldest daughter Jamur Rika.
As a counterbalance, the main villain of the book is Chancellor Urtica, who has designs upon the Empire, not to mention a desire to instigate a war with the northern Varltung race in order to enhance his own political standing. His connections with the outlawed Cultists (practitioner of the black arts) lead to a furtherment of his career and war between the rival mage groups in Villjamur.
Between them are Errol Flynn-like rogue Randur Estevu, whose relationship with Princess Eir (the younger sister of Rika) evolves through the book. All of these have complications which read sensibly and logically throughout the book.
Other characters also further widen the novel’s viewpoint, though Mark sensibly concentrates on a few characters in depth rather than attempt epic battles and broad catalogues of people. That’s not to say there aren’t battles and well-written fight scenes, and written well at that, but the emphasis here is on the characters. Of all the book’s strengths, for me it is the range of memorable characters and the places travelled that are the pinnacle.
Similarly, the city is clearly outlined, bringing to my mind images of Viriconium and Lankhmar. The urban setting for all these characters is unveiled through a murder plot, the deaths of a number of the city’s Councillors. Leading the investigation is the ramel (an alien-type race) Investigator Jeryd, who in typical noir-fashion has personal problems which seem to be almost as complex as the case in progress. His relationship with his work-partner, Tryst, is difficult, as Tryst was recently passed over in promotion, whilst his marriage to Marysa seems to be on the rocks.
Often, in larger tales, a reader can lose track of characters, places and events. This didn’t happen for me here. There are instead impressive actions, dark alleyways and soaring towers, places of grandeur and power, scary monsters, eldritch magic and alien races that are in enough variety to keep the reader engaged. For some writers such a variety can be quite a struggle to maintain, juggling all these elements, but I was pleased that Mark, for such a relatively new writer, was able to do so with skill and élan.
In fact, NoV is a great book, which takes old tropes and re-imagines them into something new and memorable. It is an assured tale written with style, intelligence and skill, written inside a fantastically set premise and brilliantly focused novel that shows all the strengths of the genre and relatively few of the weaknesses.
The main disappointment for me was the fact that when I finished the book I wanted to read further (the book is the first in a proposed series.) Though the book finishes at an acceptable place, the book does have that feeling at the end that there are many unresolved events set in motion that will be examined in future novels.
In summary, though, very highly recommended. Definitely my favourite fantasy of the year so far, in what is a very good year for the genre. This will be a ‘best of the year’ novel, unless I’m much mistaken.
Mark Yon, April/May 2009