DUSK by Tim Lebbon
ISBN: 0553383647 Published February 2006
Bantam Spectra 416 pages
The year is the Year of the Black 2208. There has been no magic on the world of Noreela for three centuries. It is a savage place, a post-Cataclysmic War environment, where life is nasty, very unpleasant and often short.
The book begins with violence - a graphic and gruesome massacre of men, women and children in a village by an seemingly unstoppable creature, a Red Monk. It is searching for Rafe Baburn, a young man who, though he doesn’t entirely know it, has a destiny, and whose future will affect Noreela. And the return of the Mages also means that magic is returning…..
So starts Tim Lebbon’s first book in his latest fantasy duology. Tim Lebbon is a Bram Stoker Award winning author, as well as the winner of two British Fantasy Awards, a Tombstone Award and a finalist for both the International Horror Guild and the World Fantasy Awards, where he has also been a judge. DUSK is his eighth novel.
That brief resume should tell you that with such a pedigree and track record, this would therefore suggest that DUSK is something special. It is, in fact, a horror writer’s take on a fantasy novel, and if you have the stomach for it, it is a memorable read.
The book is a book in two parts. The first half, First Signs of Night, introduces a broad range of characters to the reader. Much of this part of the book deals with the premonitions that show things are changing and that the evil of magic is returning. Prophecies are fulfilled and characters from the past return. A lot of this part of the book deals with Rafe’s attempts to avoid the Red Monks, who are determined to stop the return of the Mages and the magic that they would like to wield. But this is a broader book than that, in that there are other characters introduced which expand the scope of the book. Alishia is a librarian in an enormous library in Noreela City, where (presumably as a result of cultural decay) people do not really read. The destruction of the library leads her to start on a great adventure. This leads her to meet Trey, who is found injured, escaping from the destruction of his previous life, permanently underground mining fledge (a hallucinogenic drug used for recreation and for out of body experiences). There is also Kosar, a criminal determined to do good who, like Rafe, has escaped the Red Monks and now wants to survive with his old friend and lover, A’Meer. A’Meer is a character with a long and complicated past. Hope is an old witch who, seeing the signs, has taken on the responsibility of looking after Rafe, our messiah-like innocent.
On the other side of the coin, the book also deals with the Mages and their allies – outcasts living in exile after their destruction of the world, which led to the loss of magic. Leading their return is Lenora, a psychopathic character given the responsibility of leading an army, the Krotes, clearing the way for the Mages to get revenge and return to a position of power.
The second part of the book, Sunfall, mainly deals with the return of the Mages. Having spent the first part of the book building the world and its characters, this part of the book deals with the way that the Mages return, leaving destruction and carnage in their wake.
For those who read a lot of Fantasy, the plot in that brief introduction above may at first sound a little familiar. However, Tim’s dexterity as a writer is to take those genre concepts and plot elements and turn them into a compelling, if harrowing, read.
I was hooked straight away. It is dark, nasty, and visceral and yet a real page-turner. The characters are well developed, - so good that even when they are not likeable, they are comprehensible. The skill of a good writer is that, whether good or bad, as a reader you want to know what happens to these characters. Lebbon managed this admirably.
Where this book scored for me was is in the way that a horror writer’s sensibilities are given in a Fantasy context. This is best shown in the book’s representation of evil. The Red Monks, for example, are convincingly frightening; horrific, twisted, unstoppable spectres of evil, whose presence was compellingly there throughout the book. (This is also shown in the fabulous cover of the book). The Mages are corrupt megalomaniacs, whose sense of purpose is briefly given, yet clearly expressed. And then there are The Nax, a malevolent intelligence living deep below ground in a Lovecraftian way – unspeakable, nameless evil.
There are points in the book and events that shock and will horrify. It is clearly an adult book, using words and language that are not for those who like their Fantasy as cosy comfort reading. Battle scenes in the second part of the book are given in details which are both horrifying and engaging. The dreadfulness of war is graphically presented. The force of evil that pervades the whole novel is shown here in its full horror. If I had to find fault, there were places where I felt that the attempts to shock were trying to shock too hard. But the cumulative effect is remarkable.
One of the basic, key themes which run through the book is redemption – something Kosar seeks, but must work hard to get. The Mages’ return is partly in response to a need for it, and the Monks are driven by a need to stop it.
Perhaps the book’s strongest theme is that of decay and decadence – a world run down and clearly on its last legs. Lebbon also manages to create a world which is convincingly corroded. Surprisingly quickly, I found myself revelling in a world of decay and disruption - like Viriconium or New Crobuzon, like Hawkwood’s world, Noreela is a world where life is hard and yet at times rewarding.
I also enjoyed the environment of Lebbon’s creation. There is a use of people, place names and events - a new vocabulary in fact - that is skilfully dripfed into the reader’s reading experience, and which by the end of the book creates this amazing, if depressing, environment. The overall drabness and darkness can be a little overwhelming after a while – I did feel in places that the point that this was a world in decay was rather overemphasised, but it has a purpose. The ending is both effective and jawdropping, cleverly building on the events of earlier in the book.
Overall, DUSK is not a light read, nor paradoxically a particularly pleasant one, in the nicest possible way. It is a good fantasy book with strong horrific tones. I found shades of Cook and Erikson here in the book’s violence, Mieville in it’s contemporary weirdness and perhaps most strongly Paul Kearney here, in that combination of horror, decay and squalor, though Lebbon is clearly his own voice. His proficiency as a writer means that in the end the style of the story wins through to create a book which is imaginative and memorable, and if you can handle it, definitely worth reading.
A very strong book, for those with a strong disposition. I look forward to the sequel in the duology, (DAWN), which is due in 2007. Tim’s website for the book, www.noreela.com gives you a taste of what’s here and is recommended.
Hobbit, September 2005
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