City of Ruin
By Mark Charan Newton
(Tor, 4 June 2010)
It's one thing to write a critically-acclaimed novel and make a name for yourself. It's another thing entirely to follow up this success by writing another book that meets everyone's heightened expectations.
Mark Charan Newton has already achieved the first part: his novel Nights of Villjamur received widespread praise, with reviewers impressed by its brooding atmosphere, the scope of its ambition, and its accomplished prose. This excellent critical reaction was backed up by very strong sales figures, heralding Newton as a rising star of the genre. At the recent book signing event at Forbidden Planet in London, Newton barely had a moment to himself as he was besieged by eager fans.
But ultimately a question had to be answered: could he do it again? No, more than that: could he surpass his earlier effort and deliver another epic fantasy that would - like its predecessor - feature heavily on everyone's 'best books of the year' lists?
Personally, I was confident that Newton would deliver. A year ago I read the first few chapters of City of Ruin in draft form, before they were even professionally edited. Even at that early stage, their quality was evident. I therefore expected City of Ruin to be a good book. My expectations - already high after reading Nights of Villjamur - were raised even further.
The fact that City of Ruin still managed to blow me away therefore speaks volumes.
Following on directly from the events of the previous book, the bulk of the story takes place in the city of Villiren - a very different environment from the often elegant Villjamur, Villiren is an urban sprawl of sin and corruption: a city bloated from black market economies and shady business dealings, where gangs rule the streets and nightmarish creatures lurk in the shadows.
Yet a shadow has fallen over Villiren: the unknown enemy responsible for committing genocide on the fringes of the Jamur Empire's territories now has the city in its sights, and is determined to raze it to the ground for reasons that remain incomprehensible.
It falls to Brynd Lathraea - commander of the empire's troops - to formulate a strategy to defend the city: a thankless task, given its fractured and impoverished society. Brynd's troubles are compounded when an elite soldier goes missing, and he calls on the exiled inquisitor, Rumex Jeryd, to lead the search. Jeryd's investigations take him into the vile underbelly of Villiren, where he uncovers a horrifying truth. As the battle for Villiren's future commences, one question arises: how do you save a city that is already a ruin?
Newton readily admitted that with Nights of Villjamur his creative wings, to an extent, were clipped. He spoke of the need to make his innovations and beloved weirdness accessible. This time around, he faced no such restrictions. Subsequently, his potent imagination has been given free reign in City of Ruin. The little touches and flourishes that gave his first book such a dark, rich texture are all present and correct, but are ratcheted up several notches. The results are beguiling, exciting, and often spectacular. Make no mistake, Newton has a vivid and fertile imagination.
More impressive still is the extent to which Newton has developed as a writer: with City of Ruin, he has improved on practically every aspect that made Nights of Villjamur such a success.
Once again, he weaves several story strands together, though this time there is a much greater sense of urgency and relevance, and the end result is far tighter and much more cohesive. This in turn benefits the pacing, which pleasingly increases throughout the novel until it explodes in an exhilarating climax.
Characters are more clearly defined this time around, particularly so in the case of Brynd who really takes centre stage after being a rather peripheral figure at times in the first book. Some of his personal preferences - touched upon previously - are this time explored in far greater depth, and actually play a more relevant role in the unfolding events. Jeryd is the same affable, nostalgia-tinged character who is still enjoyable to spend time with, while Randur transcends his playboy trappings to become something harder and colder. There are a host of new characters as well, of whom Malum is the most noteworthy: a superbly-crafted figure whose aggressive, impregnable exterior hides a softer centre. The relationships Newton builds between these characters are eminently believable and often extremely touching; once again, he shows he has a real understanding of how human emotions play out.
Newton has always been a confident writer; his noir-tinged style infused his previous novel, and with City of Ruin he has really refined and honed his prose. Few writers can imbue their work with such atmosphere - this is an aspect of Newton's work where the influence of China Miéville really shines through, and the comparison does not flatter Newton at all (a notion shared by Miéville, whose positive words adorn the back of City of Ruin).
Newton doesn't just tell a good story though; he also deftly explores a number of themes, touching on racism, sexuality and masculinity. In fact, he doesn't just explore these themes: he often uses them to drive the plot, lending the story a contemporary edge that resonates throughout the book, and in many ways defines it. Via subtle means, he also reveals more of the history of his world, lending it further depth and vitality.
There are flaws of course, but they're minor and their effect is negligible. One or two events seemed a little contrived, and in one particular scene a certain character's reaction doesn't quite ring true. Some language is recycled a little too frequently, but this is ultimately just nit-picking. None of these perceived flaws detract from the book's excellence.
Verdict: City of Ruin is the kind of book you'd expect an established author to turn out whilst writing at the top of their game, perhaps as their career-defining moment. You wouldn't expect a twenty-something, fledgling novelist to deliver a novel of such quality - and for that Newton deserves special credit. This is an enthralling tale of bizarre technology, lost civilisations and the various facets of human nature. Masterfully constructed, potent with meaning and wrapped up in wonderfully evocative prose, City of Ruin has propelled Newton into the ranks of epic fantasy's finest writers.