Mark Charan Newton
(Tor, 5 June 2009)
In recent years Tor, in the UK at least, have developed something of a reputation for publishing more serious, innovative fantasy. China Miéville has been around for a while, but new, exciting authors have emerged from the Tor stable: Alan Campbell, Hal Duncan, Adrian Tchaikovsky. Something all these authors have in common is that they've delivered novels that deviate from the norm, that are a cut above much of the bubblegum fantasy being peddled around at the minute. Their novels actually try to do something a little different.
Mark Charan Newton is the latest new talent to emerge, and with his debut effort Nights of Villjamur, it's safe to say that he continues this innovative, more serious tradition. He's joined their ranks - and he fits in very comfortably indeed.
An ice age is looming. In its wake, thousands of refugees descend upon the 'Sanctuary City' of Villjamur, hoping for shelter from the impending ice. But there's trouble at the top - the emperor is growing increasingly paranoid about his position, and his suicide leaves a vacuum in government at the worst possible time. Brynd Lathraea, Commander of the elite Nightguard, heads out into the Boreal Archipelago to escort the emperor's daughter, Rika, home to take the throne. Yet other political factions are waiting to play their hands...
At the same time: Investigator Jeryd of the city's Inquisition finds himself investigating the mysterious murder of a councillor, while trying to patch together his own failed personal life; a young womaniser arrives in the city with his own hidden agenda; and reports come in of some sort of massacre on the northern islands of the empire. In this land under a red, dying sun, events are about to come to a head...
Several things become apparent after reading just a few chapters of Nights of Villjamur. The first is that Newton writes very fluidly, with a stylistic and - dare I say it - more literary flourish than you often find in fantasy. His prose is often refreshingly noir, and is pleasingly evocative and visceral. Furthermore, he strikes a fine balance between description and action, deftly avoiding clumsy info-dumps. The pacing is very good; at no point does the narrative get bogged down.
What also quickly shines through is Newton's worldbuilding, which is both innovative and beguiling. To my mind, the real star of the novel is the city of Villjamur itself: a hulking, brooding mass of humanity laced in snow. Newton imbibes the city with real life and vitality, from the glittering spires to the most rancid hovels. The city has a pulse, a heartbeat - it's a living entity. This is clearly something that Newton wanted to get across, and he achieves this with aplomb. The wider setting - the Boreal Archipelago - is hauntingly beautiful; I could clearly envisage these wintry lands beneath a bleeding, dying sun.
There's a lot of cool stuff in Newton's world, and I won't remark much on this to avoid spoiling anything. Suffice to say that I think the whole idea of the cultists and their ancient technology is a very fine one indeed, an idea with almost limitless possibilities. I really like the whole idea of men and women devoting their lives to these ancient technologies, and in some cases becoming obsessed with the results of their studies.
Newton proves just as adept at characterisation as he does with his worldbuilding and prose, if not more so. There are some strong characters here, from the lonesome, melancholy Tuya, to the albino commander Brynd (whose personal life is almost as dangerous as his professional one), to the noir-ish Jeryd, who knows he's screwed his life up and doesn't know how to fix it. Newton's strength is that he understands how human emotions work, and subsequently his characters feel like fully fleshed-out individuals. He creates relationships that are both believable and, in Jeryd's case, touching. These are people you can find sympathy and anger for, depending on who they are and what they do.
Nights of Villjamur isn't your usual by-the-numbers fantasy story. This is a tale about humanitarian issues, about politics, about relationships, about surviving. Newton manages to deal with a number of themes and issues, exploring them without bludgeoning the reader over the head with them. We see heroism, we see the dangers and vileness of right-wing politics, we see love in its different guises. Against the moody backdrop of the city, it's a heady, enthralling mix.
Some aspects did niggle a little. I never really got a physical feel for the rumel race, couldn't quite picture them properly, so I think a little more description would have helped. One or two events seemed a little contrived, and I would have liked to have seen some aspects - the anarchist group, the power struggle between Rika and Chancellor Urtica - developed more. I would also have liked a little more resolution at the end of the novel, but then it is clearly labelled as the first book in a series, so perhaps that particular criticism isn't fair.
Verdict: All things considered, Nights of Villjamur is a very strong debut epic fantasy novel. Liquid prose with noir stylings evoke a brooding city in all its glory and despair, filled with believable characters and dozens of small innovations that make the world that bit more intriguing. This is a grown-up fantasy that touches on real-life concerns, and this is where fantasy is at its most potent and relevant. Newton is certainly a new talent to watch, and I look forward to the next in the Legends of the Red Sun series...
I've got a couple of things with Mark lined up for this blog - look out for them in the near future. In the meantime, check out his website.