on 15 March 2013
So, the Orbit marketing team did a really good job of getting this blasted all over my twitter and Facebook and making me fall in serious cover lust. It's just such a striking image - I love it - and reading the blurb only made me more interested. I was pleased that the story lived up to the promise.
The great strength of the story is the world. Mahala is an entirely believable place, horrific in its details, and Knight throws you in at the deep end - quite literally - starting the story in the dingy squalor of the lower levels of the city. It's a world that only ever gets second hand light, bounced off mirrors (if that) and the darkness hides evil deeds done by those from the Heights. The city is like one big metaphor for the rich - again quite literally - s***ting on the poor. But it manages to be so without being overly preachy.
The characters are great, with Rojan shining as the narrator. He's a cowardly, chauvinistic opportunist, but you can't help but like him, even before he starts stepping up to the plate of the challenges he's facing. Other, more minor, characters are just as good, from warrior Jake to unlikely hero Pasha, and there's plenty of damage to go round to add interesting layers and motivations.
Because this isn't just 'dark' fantasy in the literal 'it's a dark place' sense. Fade to Black deals with some challenging themes, and doesn't shy away from gore and violence. Which, personally, I like in a book - because it's always satisfying to see these empires of evil toppled by a plucky hero in a way that would likely never happen in the real world.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this. It's one that will lurk with you for a while - for all it reads like a fast paced adventure story with no real depth, there are as many layers to the story as there are to the city of Mahala.
There are some great ideas here and an intriguing premise that sadly, just didn't deliver. The world building is terrific, the best thing in this novel by a mile. The characters have no discernible depth and the plot was one long cliché that reads like a checklist of currently fashionable themes: steampunk meets dystopia meets urban fantasy meets practical magic in a cod-noir style, in which a hard bitten Chandleresque anti-hero gets his comeuppance when he encounters the tough n' feisty, streetwise heroine and... yadda yadda yadda yadda ya. There is nothing fresh here, nothing I haven't read in a dozen other books. In the last few chapters, things start to speed up a bit; stuff actually happens, but the characters remain half-baked, unfinished, unconvincing. Stuff happens to them - pretty nasty stuff on the whole (the entire central concept is gory and not for the faint hearted, and also disturbingly and surprisingly misogynist, considering the author is female) - and I couldn't have cared less. The characters were so cardboard, I never grew to care about a single one of them.
Mahala is Fade to Black's sole saving grace. The city: the concept behind the city: the whole setting is fabulous. If world building is your thing as it is mine - read it for that alone.
Dark fantasy fiction meets hard boiled private detective style stories in a new fantasy novel. It's the first in a series. It runs for three hundred and forty seven pages. And is divided into nineteen chapters.
The main character is Rojan Dizon. Who narrates the story in the first person present tense. Like all good fictional private eyes. He lives in the city of Mahala. A city of many levels. From the run down lower ones to the much classier upper levels. Where are based the Ministry. Who run things.
We're introduced to Rojan whilst he's on a case, trying to track down a runaway girl. His next job is of a rather personal nature, as he is hired by his brother, from whom he is estranged, to find his niece. Who has been kidnapped.
The case leads him further into the lower levels than he's even been before. Where he meets an interesting couple. And finds out far more about himself and the city than he ever expected to.
The book does get going at a fast pace that does do a good job of introducing you to Rojan and his world quite quickly. It's nice to have a fantasy city and setting that is such an original creation. There are none of the usual cliche creatures of the genre to be found here. There are elements of technology in with the magic. And Rojan can get magical power from pain.
Although at the same time, this being a first book in a series, means it does take a little getting used to.
It moves along nicely enough, though. Taking it's time to fill in details along the way and bring us some decent supporting characters.
This is a book for older readers, thanks to strong language and some adult situations and violent moments. It has to be said that some of the adult language does occasionally feel a little bit unnecessary.
For the bulk of it, though, Rojan doesn't feel like a really memorable character. More a generic detective type. However things do come together superbly well in the last fifty pages, when all the plot strands converge and a few surprises await the reader. This all has the effect of bringing the story in this volume to a close, but setting up lots of possible directions for future ones to go in.
So all in all a pretty decent start to the series and a worthwhile read. I will be looking out for future volumes.
This one concludes with a short interview with the writer.
The morally ambivalent Rojan Dizon makes his living tracking down run-aways and taking them home - whether they want to or not. That's no mean feat in a city the size of Mahala, given that it consists of layers of layers of buildings and streets built one upon another in a valley situated between two warring states. Key to Rojan's success is that he's a pain mage - someone who can use pain to accomplish magical feats - in his case, finding things and altering his face.
Pain magic's been banned in Mahala ever since the Archdeacon and the Ministry overthrew the tyrannical mage-king and banished the pain mages. If the Ministry discovers Rojan's abilities, then he'll be cast into the Pit - the lowest levels of the city populated by people dying from Synth - a power source that turned out to be poisonous and which triggered an environmental disaster.
When Rojan's estranged brother Perak is shot and his niece kidnapped, Rojan agrees to look for her. Doing so means venturing into the Pit where he discovers that Mahala has dirty secrets of its own and it soon becomes clear that Rojan's abilities hold the key to Mahala's future ...
Francis Knight's debut fantasy (the first in a trilogy) is a well-imagined story with a strong first-person voice and an intriguing premise that promises much for the rest of the trilogy.
Rojan portrays himself as a morally ambiguous womaniser who cares only for himself but this is belied by his actions from the start. I didn't mind that but it does take away from his supposed edge and there are times in the book where I'd have liked less personal angst given that his actions are never in doubt.
I loved Knight's depiction of Mahala, a dystopic city state ruled by a corrupt religion and more corrupt Ministry, damaged by an ecological disaster and with a literal underclass of the sick and dying. It's got a great noir-ish feel, especially the Pit and I loved the fact that it relies on factories and technology.
The story unfolds at a good pace and has plenty of twists to it. However the writing is a little baggy at times and in the last quarter it relies heavily on exposition and sudden revelations insufficiently set up earlier on.
All in all though, this is a solid debut and I shall definitely be reading on.
A good start to what I am sure will be a sequence of stories with a central character who as a forbidden "Pain Mage" has a limited palate of magical skills. The city he lives in and has to wrestle with is built up vertically with the trash, unwanted at the bottom and progressive layers of inhabitants moving up to the top sunny most layer. Begs the question as to why those at the bottom don't just set fire to the place to even things up a bit - but there you have it.
Well written - no great gratuitous violence for the sake of it. The only reason it just dips out of being a four star read is that some of the situations have a small unbelievable ring about them where a different outcome could easily have been obtained by a bit of worst/better luck.
All in all it's a good read, well imagined and presented. I would wish to read more and could only get better - this one is very almost 4 stars
The city is built vertically rather than horizontally - so where we would expect the rich and powerful to live (the West End) becomes the Top - and the poor and defenceless therefore live at the bottom.
The city is built in a valley and lends itself to a narrow, tall structure with little daylight penetrating the poor souls at the bottom (called the Pit).
Into this world we meet a variety of characters - some magicians, some of the rich and powerful, and a wide variety of specimens from all stratas (literally!) of society.
A clever idea - and well handled with excellent descriptions of the vertiginous city (not somewhere I personally could cope with!), plus an exciting tale of adventure, evil, bravery and the occasional weapons-grade stupidity.
I liked the hero, I liked the story, I loved the idea of the vertical City, and I hardly put the book down until I had finished it.
on 10 January 2015
Fade to Black by Francis Knight
This is really a great debut novel. There is a lot to like about it and there is a bit even to detest. It's written in a stylish Noir that reminds me of the old black and white mysteries with the gumshoes. Sort of a Mystic Maltese Falcon. The main character is Rojan Dizon a pain Mage who really isn't all that fond of pain so he's tried not to do too much magic. There's more to it than that though because too much pain magic can lead to a very dark place that often is impossible for the Mage to find his way out of. Rojan has lived in a dark world in a black existence trying to avoid another darkness that makes everything around him seem pale in comparison. He uses his magic to locate people and that's how the reader is introduced to him when an unsavory client hires him to find and bring back his teen age daughter Lise who has run away. Lise has some tricks up her sleeve that have made his job particularly difficult and he's had to resort to a device manufactured by a dwarf colleague. The device amplifies his magic which mean he has to still endure pain but a bit less of it to get good result. Rojan is not a particularly likeable character but what he does in his interaction with Lise tells us that there is someone with just a bit more heart behind the veneer that covers him in the first part of the book.
As the story unfolds we begin to find the reason that Rojan lives on the edge using his magic illegally and defying the Ministry. There was a golden age when Pain Mages controlled things and were powerful. They were trained to properly use the magic. Then the Ministry stepped in and began to ban the use of pain magic. Things were controlled and operated using Synth, but Synth turned out to be a very bad thing and now they have something less powerful running things called Glow. And now they have a dark dystopic environment that is still poisoned by the Synth and there are too many mysteries behind what makes the Glow operate.
This dystopic world is similar in many way to the one in Thea von Harbou's Metropolis. And there are a number of other similarities to the two stories. Rojan has a family a brother though his mother has died from the effects of synth and his father has run off abandoning them. Rojan too has run; despite his promise to his mother that he would take care of his brother. And now his brother has contacted him because someone has killed his brother's wife and kidnapped their daughter. This novel is chock full of old tropes but this is the story of Rojan and his journey of self discovery that takes him to the depths of the world he would have preferred to forget.
The trail to his niece takes him to the lowest level of society where it still rains Synth and life is cheap and there is evidence that the Ministry is hip deep in whatever it is that is driving the social order in the lowest levels of society. In the depths of despair where even the errant ministry minions might find that life is cheap; they are still feared by those who would kill them because of what they represent even to the cut throats of the social order.
It is there that Rojan must confront his greatest fears and hope to find a balance in the power that he's been trying to avoid. Here he discovers love for an idea that is represented by a person who is nothing like that ideal, but masquerades as that person he is drawn to. When the time comes Rojan has to draw deep into himself to decide if he will do what is right or try to return to his comfort-zone where he's kept himself hidden.
This is an outstanding SFF that most Fantasy lovers should enjoy and some Science Fiction aficionados will appreciate.
It will definitely be worthwhile to see what Francis Knight follows this with.
on 10 May 2014
Fade to Black is a book that is not going to be to everyone’s taste. And that is fair enough, it different enough to stand out from a lot of the fantasy out there. For myself though, I liked the style, liked the characters, the ideas and the story. So with that in mind there was no way I was not going to enjoy it.
Rojan Dizon is a man who finds people in the city of Mahala, something he is particularly good at, partially because he is a low level pain mage. Someone who can draw power from pain - either their own or that inflicted upon others. It is also one of those things that he hides. But when his niece is kidnapped he is driven to find her, forced deeper into the city uncovering secret after secret as he goes.
Mahala is a superb creation, dark and grim and becoming darker the further Dizon descends. It is powered uniquely and has a history that is described well without going into too much detail. It has the feeling of being on the edge of both fantasy, science fiction and steampunk.
The characters are well drawn, although perhaps on occasion they change a little too quickly, but then as you read on you find that there is a good reason for it. Knight is very good at giving the reader enough information without treating them like idiots and spelling it all out in detail.
Dizon himself makes an intriguing lead character, certainly not a standard hero, but one well worth investing in. And coming back to in future novels. Some of the things he discovers on his descent through the city are close to brilliance - the ‘glow’ that powers the city is as disturbing as it is clever; and how it all ties together nicely is both the strongest part of the novel, and perhaps in some ways, the weakest. Maybe some of the twists and surprises could have been left for future volumes.
All told though, if you want to read something that has it’s own identity, without committing to a series, something self contained then this is an excellent choice. But if you decide you wish to revisit Dizon and Mahala then there are more...
on 23 January 2014
Fantastic world building, brilliantly drawn characters, very varied and complex. Not an easy read though. Rojan was quite hard to like (sympathise/empathise with) and he was by far the most appealing character. The others... Well they all had varying degrees of dislikeability.
The city was amazing, and the ideas fantastic, but I struggled to come up with any visual images because of contradictory messages - the middle of the the Pit is the old city keep, roofed over by the rest of the city and sealed in darkness, in which case, how can the keep be seen from a distance? How can the city be built thousands of feet upwards, on rotting, crumbling foundations? Surely sections would collapse, crushing everything beneath on a regular basis? I can't believe that an entire generation could grow without sunlight (vit D deficiency, anyone?). If all light in the lower city is third hand by light reflection, what happens at the edge of the city?
Normally, when I give a 5* review I go straight out and buy the next in the series. This time, I'm not sure that I care about any of the characters enough to experience such a grim environment again. Does that make me a fluffy pink wimp? I don't think so. I don't enjoy sentimentality or marshmallow happy endings, but I don't read in order to be pulled into an unremittingly grim, abusive and depressing world. In this book, even the happy ending left an entire city struggling in worse conditions at the beginning (albeit for very good reasons).
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The fantasy city in which it is set is recognisable as the background to Blade Runner, this is what it is like to live in that dripping, densely populated semi-darkness with the threat of militarised police and the blight of heavy industry. Luxuries are few, expensive and precious. But magic coexists with technology in this book and its source is pain; its an interesting idea to have magic but be reluctant to use it because of the price.
Rojan, our hero narrator, is from a detective film noir; he pretends to be cynical and heartless, but his actions belie this. He has a touch of Sam Spade and indeed his weakness for dames. I liked him and look forward to reading more of his adventures. I did wonder whether this book was originally targeted at young adults, with later content added to pitch it more towards the fully adult market. There are some details that put it in the adult category, but very little description of the most adult themes. For instance we know from his own description that Rojan is a womaniser and that early in the book he is dumped by the women he's been simultaneously seeing, but that's as much as we experience of that aspect of his life. Love yes, sex no. No detailed descriptions of torture either, I'm glad of this, but at times the book seems a little "light". However a good cast of characters who made me care about what happened to them.
The "extras" at the back include an interview with the author and reveal an interesting twist which I hadn't guessed. I will be looking out for the next book.