If you didn't live through the Golden Age of Speculative Fiction (I didn't) and haven't gone back and read some of the fantastic 1930's-1950's novels (I have), you are certainly missing out. Today, Fantasy Novels and Science Fiction novels tend to be more character based than they were back then. Back in this `Golden Era' the novels tended to be focused on the setting. The locations within these novels really seemed to live and breathe - they left you with that `oh, I wish I could visit there!' type feeling. In modern fantasy / sci-fi though, we seem to focus more on characters. What seems to have happened is that we've kind of accepted that `medieval' type setting and authors have enjoyed being able to create their stories within that kind of world. Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The Painted Man, think of those worlds. Although they all have different rules and such - they feel quite similar.
Well, there are critics who really, really hate this aspect of fantasy. They actually play on it a bit, saying that `fantasy is all the same' and try to overemphasise these kinds of similarities. What I'd like to do though is invite a critic to try and do that to the book well will be reviewing today, this is: Mark Charan Newton's book: `The Nights of Villjamur'. I challenge them to do this because there is next to nothing within this novel that isn't unique or at least rare within our genre.
An Ice Age is coming (OK, so that reminds us of another Fantasy Novel - but that's one of the last things that will be familiar) and the ancient city of Villjamur is getting ready to shut its gates and wait it out. The well populated Islands that surround Villjamur are in a state of panic and realise that there is no way that they can survive the cold when it hits. They flee to Villjamur in hope of refuge, but their city is already full and they cannot take any more people within their walls.
Already, I hope you're intrigued, but I really struggle to do these early events justice. The build up of fear in the early chapters and the beautiful descriptions of a unique city that is full of unfamiliar creatures, races, architecture and cults is phenomenal. Not even a quarter-way through the book you will feel as though you have visited this amazing world and that it is completely new. I think this is quite unique in modern fantasy as I have said and a reason so many fans have gotten behind Mark's work.
Essentially the novel draws you in with a sense of uncertainty. You want to see how things are resolved and what will happen to this world, which seems to be in a state of panic. This feeling of panic and uncertainty is pressed all the more when the Emperor kills himself and leaves Villjamur without a male heir. Instead, they have to call upon his daughter who is off in a far away land following rituals completely foreign to Villjamur.
Once the scene is set the characters begin to take shape. It is hard to identify the protagonist, because there are three characters who could argue that title; Commander `Brynd', Investigator `Jeryd' or Island Boy `Randur'. Each has their own interesting storyline that until the very end of the novel are fairly independent of each other and this is a technique that works very, very well.
Jeryd is investigating the murder of a high profile politician. The investigation takes him down into the darker side of the city. He speaks with a number of shady characters, races and creatures along his journey, perhaps my favourite are: `The Banshees'. They wonder around, minding their business until someone is killed. Instantly they are compelled to scream out and dash towards the location that the individual is killed. It's quite eerie having them described to you for one, but even more eerie is when the characters describe hearing them and you are left wondering who has died. Of course Jeryd's investigation into the murder takes you down a number of unexpected routes and you will find out that things are far more complicated than just your typical murder.
Randur seems to have arrived in the city with some kind of task in mind. I will state now - Randur is the coolest character there has ever been within the Fantasy genre. He is attractive, he is lean, athletic, women fall over him (not in a cheesy-traditional sense), he is loveable, he isn't a goody-two shoes - dammit, he is just cool! His story progresses from a kind of illegal immigrant exploring the city through to a young man who is within touching distance of political events. This begins when he starts to teach the new empress's sister (Eir) how to dance and use a sword. You can see where this is leading, but the dynamics of their relationship (high born and low born) and great and the fact that Randur lives life so close to the edge, whilst she has been sheltered away makes for some fantastic dialogue between the two.
Finally, we have Brynd. We begin the novel by seeing much of the action through his eyes. He is the commander of `The Night Watch'; a group of soldiers who have enhanced abilities. He investigates some of the strange events that are occurring on the surrounding islands. His story starts off as a way to show us as readers what is going on outside Villjamur, but his role does grow and the ending for this character certainly sets up us for a promising second novel (which is already out by the way!).
So, I've tried to tell you about the novel without spoiling things - quite a difficult challenge... so sorry if I've failed or left you a bit perplexed! What you need to know about this novel is that some of the very best elements of fantasy come together in this single novel and I would argue that it is one of the finest examples of `fantasy literature' out there today. You have exciting, intelligent plots, an unusual world, a unique usage of technology, a range of species that are fairly irregular in fantasy as well as some new ones that are completely unheard of and finally, Mark Charan Newton as the author has some of the most beautiful prose I have been lucky enough to stumble upon.