Final books in series are always tricky. Will the author tie everything up with a lovely bow for readers? Will there be vague, open-ended solutions that will have fans guessing and debating what really happened? Will it be an awful mess? There are many decisions and pitfalls that can catch the unwary or incautious author. But with The Broken Isles, Newton has pretty much dodged them all. This is a great ending. The story is top notch, as we can expect. I think each book in the Legends of the Red Sun series has improved in every way, and The Broken Isles is no exception, with great writing, an exciting story, and engaging characters.
[Despite my best efforts, there are some spoilers in this review. If you haven't read the first three books in Legends of the Red Sun, I obviously think you should go read them now, as the whole series is fantastic. However, if you want to keep reading this review, you should proceed with caution.]
When the novel begins, we're quickly relocated back into the world, into the swing of events, and reacquainted with the characters. Villjamur has been destroyed, and the fleeing refugees are dogged by the invaders and their Sky City. Word reaches Villiren, itself recovering from the battles in City of Ruin, and Brynd must marshal a response to save as many people as possible. At the same time, anti-"alien" sentiment in Villiren, fanned by Malum and his gang, is making life extra-difficult for the leader of the Night Watch, as he attempts to negotiate a settlement with the inter-dimensional refugees as well.
The story is presented from a number of perspectives, all of them unique and distinctive: there's Brynd, the albino Night Watch Commander, who is in charge of Villiren's defence, and enjoying the position of de facto ruler. Jamur Eir and Rika are prominent, as is Eir's companion, the roguish Randur. Unfortunately, some of the previous events have left Rika both physically and psychologically damaged - perhaps even beyond repair or saving. Fulcrom, the Rummel former-inquisitor, is accompanying the refugees from Villjamur, alongside Lan, the heroine from Book of Transformations.
The narrative includes more of a focus on the enigmatic otherworlders who have joined our heroes than in previous books, but they do not dominate the story - Brynd, Randur, Eir, and Jeza are the key protagonists. Both the Amazon-like Artemisia and bizarre Frater Mercury are fascinating characters, but they are also rather frustrating to their ambassadors. Especially Fulcrom, who finds Frater Mercury endlessly ittitating, unfathomable, and downright difficult on many occasions.
There are also a couple of new additions to the cast. My personal favourites are Jeza and her fellow young cultists from Factory 54, who provide some unexpected help to Brynd's plans. I really enjoyed these characters, and it is through them that we learn even more about cultists and the science-magic of Newton's world. They also bring to life the Mourning Wasps, devised by China Mieville specifically for this book.
As with Newton's other novels, The Broken Isles is filled with imaginative and original creatures, concepts and more. The inhabitants of Villiren are coming to terms with the fact that they will have to share their land and city with aliens from another dimension. Many are not reacting well, and Brynd is forced to take a firm hand against those troublemakers who want to do anything to prevent the Other from unsettling the status quo. It offers up some nicely-done commentary on racism and intolerance, without bludgeoning the reader about the head. It's a deft touch, and I love the way Newton is able to seamlessly weave social commentary (including some about bankers, this time) into the narrative. The discussions about Villiren's future are also an interesting examination of nation-building under the shadow of war. It's really interesting stuff. Things are, I admit, rather neatly tied up at the end, which may not please everyone, but I appreciated that Newton decided to properly finish the story.
Newton's prose is, once again, exceptional - it is fluid, devoid of extraneous verbiage, and really pulled me on through the novel. He kept me reading well into the night. His descriptions are evocative, yet stripped-down, and each scene's atmosphere and ambience is expertly portrayed. The author's writing has improved with every novel. It will certainly be interesting to read the new edition of Nights of Villjamur (out in November), on which Newton has done a re-edit and tweak.
I think my only real complaint about the novel is the absence of the chain-smoking Hanuman from City of Ruin. As Randur points out at one point, echoing my own thoughts: "Ridiculous, if you ask me, though the flying monkey things were fun."
The plot builds to an action-packed climax, as battle erupts on multiple fronts, leaving Brynd's forces over-taxed and, potentially, over-matched. There's also perhaps the most bad-ass "boss fight" near the very end, which I thought perfectly exhibited Brynd as the brutal, elite-soldier he is.
Once again, Newton has written a novel of depth, compelling characters, excellent drama, and captivating prose. I love this series, and I'm rather sad it had to end. Easily one of my favourite fantasy series, I highly recommend this to everyone, especially people in search of fantasy that is a little unusual.
Brynd Lathraea has saved the city of Villiren from the invading Okun. Jamur Rika has now made the city her new capital and declared herself Empress, but Brynd is concerned over her fragile mental state. As the invaders grow in strength and numbers, Brynd makes an important alliance, but one that may cost him the support of the people.
The Broken Isles is the fourth and concluding novel in the Legends of the Red Sun series which began way back in 2009 with Nights of Villjamur. Through that novel and its two sequels, City of Ruin and The Book of Transformations, Newton painted a convincing picture of a world slipping into an ice age, riven by internal conflict and external threats. It's definitely been one of the most interesting of recent fantasy series, fusing elements of traditional epic fantasy with the New Weird movement and with the Dying Earth subgenre.
The structure of the series to date has been to use a different main cast in each book, sometimes comprising new characters and sometimes promoting former minor, supporting characters to main character status. It's worked well in previous novels, but in The Broken Isles Newton has to combine all of these characters into one larger cast operating in multiple locations to address all of the numerous plot strands he's been developing. Unfortunately, this does not work very well. The Broken Isles is the big, epic finale to a fantasy saga but has the same page count as the novels that came before it (just under 400 pages in paperback). Suddenly having to handle a greatly enlarged cast means that each character now gets rather short shrift in terms of development and attention.
This problem extends to the plot and structure: the book opens with a chain of fleeing refugees who have to be saved from pursuit, whilst Brynd has to secure control of Villiren and deal with the increasingly bizarre Empress and secure an alliance with another faction of the alien forces and deal with cultists intent on resurrecting an ancient monster and deal with a racist crime lord determined to take control of the city and force foreigners out and save the entire Boreal Archipelago from annihilation at the hands of the Okun and their masters. The book's slim page count can't deal with the weight of all this at all.
The result is that The Broken Isles feels like a tremendously detailed outline for a much longer and, frankly, much better novel. Scenes, even momentous ones, are short and perfunctory. There are no subtle moments of revelation, with info-dumping and exposition being the order of the day to clear up mysteries that have been around from the start of the series. Newton's prose, which has been enjoyable and offbeat since the first novel, is here reduced to the most simple and prosaic. The pacing tends towards the staccato, with scenes feeling almost disconnected from events around them. Things happen but they have no weight to them.
This is a monumental shame, as Newton's ideas remain as fascinating as ever. The Mourning Wasp (developed with China Mieville) is a terrific creation. The idea of turning the invaders' own technology against them is a good one (the sort-of cultist storyline dealing with this is actually one of the better-handled ones in the book). The invading flying city is appropriately threatening. Frater Mercury's solution to the invading aliens is over-simplistic, but also appropriate to his character. But these moments are few and far between.
The Broken Isles (**) is an exercise in frustration. Mark Charan Newton is a talented writer, but this novel feels so compromised by word counts that most of the enjoyment has been leeched out of it, despite flashes of imaginative power. A tremendously disappointing conclusion to one of the more interesting fantasy series of recent times (and, alongside God of Clocks and The Born Queen, furthers something of a trend for Tor UK series to have disappointing finales). The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
on 27 December 2012
After the excellent themes but slightly disappointing story of The Book of Transformations, The Broken Isles is a return to strength. I won't talk much about the story because, well, what I'll say won't make sense unless you've read the first three.
But it's a great close to a great series, and it will surprise you. Our favourite characters (Brynd, Fulcrom & Lan, Randur & Eir) return and push the story along at a break-neck pace, engaging in massive scale battles, rescue missions and, well, a few moments that may very well remind you of Star Wars.
If you loved the last three books, you'll love this.
If you liked the last three books, you'll love this.
Well, actually, if you liked these books at all, you'll love this.
on 11 December 2012
I generally don't write reviews of books as they are very much a personal preference for who like and dislikes a novel or series of books. However, I felt that I needed to comment on this series as it leaves me feeling like an opportunity missed. I enjoyed the first and felt it was going to really develop however by the end of the second I was deflated and lost my enthusiasm for the series. I pressed on though to see where it went, if it could regain its momentum and how it would end. Although I'm happy that I did, I'd also not be too distressed if I'd never come across the series.
Firstly the plot throughout the series jumps around in focus a lot (forgive me if I get the flow a little mixed between books but goes to show how jarring unbalancing the changeds are). The first book aims more toward a potential political intrigue and thriller elements with Jeryd, Brynd & the Jamur royal family. The second then slams this into a completely different direction with a more fantastical elements akin to the Riftwar series. The third swings more to the political again whilst trying to mesh in the other world elements. The forth swings round into more action oriented to bring the elements to a close. It's not consistent and when the changes in tempo happen they are jarring and to my personal inclination annoying in their application.
Also there are a number of clichéd scenes included, one in particular where a set of characters escape being surrounded by soldiers made me actually audibly sigh with exasperation.
As others have mentioned there are a number of plot holes that are never developed or explained and there are a number of redundant plot threads that are never followed up on (maybe for another series of follow on books?) There are a number of deus ex machina devices deployed throughout the book which if explored further could have added real depth to the series, but once used to explain the move from A to B they are generally not touched on again bar a passing mention or explained in any further detail. Again as one review touched on the final book is the worst for this as so much of the third book proves to be pointless in the overall flow of the series and is hardly referred to in the final book
The fourth book feels rushed as it rushes to wrap up the series. There is no real feeling of anticipation or wondering what will happen next in the final battle and considering the build up they give to the enemy you'd have thought that this should be a real epic battle but I never got the feeling that they were in any danger.
My biggest bug bear though are the characters and this is because so many of them had potential to be much better than they are. The general feeling I was left with was that the author started writing several but grew most attached to Brynd and neglected the others. He is the central character to this story and all others really get pushed to the background as things go on. Many of the characters are given complex backgrounds or issues that could really flesh them out but too often they appear to overcome these a little too easily and once resolved never bother them again. The worst however, is that numerous characters are dispatched or are relegated to secondary characters in a very off hand and careless manner. Its done in such a way that the reader feels no empathy for their loss from the story and leads to a disassociation from the book as a whole where you no longer take in an interest to what might happen to the other characters. In general it feels to me that the author had a specific plot role for them to fill and then once that had been completed had no further ideas on what to do with them or time to integrate them into the rest of the story. Once they've completed their story arc they are cast aside and, much like the earlier plot points noted above, never really mentioned again. No one mentions they are missing, wonders what they are up to or that they miss them.
I don't wish to rag on the series entirely though as I said initially there were a lot of nice, original ideas to interest me and keep me wondering and it was these that kept me reading on hoping that they'd go somewhere or develop but unfortunately they don't in this case. It is this that really frustrated me and ultimately left me disappointed in these books. I don't know if the author was pushed for time or just didn't want to delve into things in too much detail but this could have been a rich and engaging world that alone could have stretched this series out for several more books but as it is we are left with these four books that feel a little mismatched and underwhelming.
on 4 December 2012
I hate to strike a negative note amongst such generally positive reviews, but I thought this whole series was pretty dreadful. I pressed on to the end, because there were some interesting concepts and promising characters struggling to emerge from the mess, but ultimately, the books are fundamentally flawed. The plot is contrived, the characters are largely superficial, narrative strands stumble into dead ends, and political issues are crassly hammered home with a complete lack of subtlety.
The latter point I found particularly jarring. I winced when a character used the the term "homo" pejoratively. I've seen homosexuality and the issues of prejudice tackled subtly and sympathetically in many fantasy novels, but here, those issues are beaten home with a club. Similarly, immigration, multiculturalism and chauvinism are tackled with an utter lack of finesse.
Dialogue is often strained, with moments of awkward exposition and misplaced contemporary jargon - "not on my watch", "landing bays". I groaned many times, and not pleasurably.
Characters suffer untimely ends, and nobody seems to really notice, robbing the reader of any emotional impact.
And yet... there are strengths. The "superhero" conceit from the previous instalment had real promise. Even that was squandered though, with plot holes and (this one again!), a lack of subtlety. The idea of creating "superheroes" in a quasi-medieval setting was clever, but did they really need to have costumes, just to ram the point home? In case anyone missed it, these are meant to be SUPERHEROES!!!! They're even referred to with that word in this novel (possibly the previous one too. I can't recall). The author needs to respect his audience and trust them to join the dots for themselves. And of course the plot holes... why just three "superheroes"? Why choose characters who are so obviously disinclined to obey authority? Those sorts of issues plague the whole series.
I look forward to reading this author in a decade or so. Currently, there's a distinct lack of maturity and experience evident in his writing. He would benefit immensely from some strong editorial feedback. I hope he's able to find a more consistent and nuanced style.