Fade to Black by Francis Knight

February 2012, Trade Paperback
Orbit Book, 384 pages
ARC courtesy of publisher       


Rojan Dizon is a man who finds people, especially people who are difficult to find.  When he successfully locates a young girl who was being treated badly by her father, he returns her, though reluctantly.  Shortly thereafter, Rojan receives a call from his estranged brother begging for help.  As it turns out, Rojan’s niece (whom he has never met) has been kidnapped and taken into the Pit, the grimy undercity of the vast vertical city of Mahala. The plot is fairly standard in that our hero plays a game of chase and search and rescue, which is fine because where Fade to Black shines is in the milieu.

Fade to Black has been categorized as an urban fantasy, but by no means is this the tramp-stamp, sexy magic version of the sub-genre. Rather, this is Urban Fantasy where the city is as much of a character as the people themselves, a novel with more similarities to China Mieville’s King Rat and Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere.  The protagonist, Rojan Dizon, in addition to being a people finder/bounty hunter, is a pain mage. By inflicting pain unto himself, Dizon is able to locate his quarry more easily; find the proverbial needle in the haystack.

This comes in handy trying to find his niece in the depths of the Pit.  On his journey, prior to entering the Pit, his colleague Dwarf suggest that he meet with Jake, a pit fighter who has not yet lost and Jake’s companion Pasha. Rojan, and the readers, are surprised when Jake turns out to be woman.  Man meets woman, man is immediately drawn to woman.  Rojan admits to the readers through the first person narrative Knight employs in the novel that he is not good with woman.  Another layer to this flawed character, though not exactly a new layer to such a protagonist. Again, this familiar character trait balances well with the relatively novel idea of pain magic.  Rojan continually fights his magic powers and giving into their use. He’s seen and knows of pain mages who become addicted, which is why Mahala has outlawed such magic.

Mahala…a dark sprawling city with layers upon layers of grit and darkness, not exactly the streets of Chicago, Atlanta, or New York.  Ruled by the Ministry, perhaps in an allusion to Orwell’s 1984, there’s a great sense of claustrophobia throughout the entire novel.  There seems to be nowhere to hide and the characters who inhabit this world, particularly Rojan, have no privacy. There’s a mixed feel of potentially dark future with a hint of pre-industrial city – guns are relatively new, the city is powered by magic, yet the class structure to me felt more modern, something out of a film like American Psycho or even Wall Street.  The city itself reminded me a bit of the towering metropolis of Alastair Reynolds’ Terminal World and the dark city of John Meany’s Bone Song, or on the film front the rainy, unnamed city of the film Seven.  I also felt a strong resonance with Richard Morgan’s fiction, both his SF and fantasy novels.

Fade to Black delvers an Urban Fantasy in the vein of sub genre’s pre-Anita Blake model, and that’s a flavor of UF of which I’d like to see more.  Though I found quite a bit of the novel entertaining and engaging, a reveal towards the end of the novel felt a bit contrived and almost convenient. I found Rojan, as a character, somewhat repetitive in his inner dialogue and not too much outside the model of the broken, disconnected, bitter, and reluctant rogue. Understandably, he’s conflicted about causing himself pain to use his magic, but he repeatedly uses his magic despite his misgivings.  The narrative pull throughout the novel was a bit uneven and inconsistent for me, though on the whole it was more than strong enough to keep the pages turning relatively quickly to find out what would happen in the end.

Knight is a writer with an intriguing vision. Fade to Black is a novel with a great milieu that could be just the tip of a proverbial iceberg for Knight’s career and the story of a fascinating invented world.

© 2013 Rob H. Bedford

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