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on 4 December 2013
Great book,very atmospheric in a Victorian kind of way. Fabulous prose and great depth, I really enjoyed reading a very engrossing fight to do the right thing. I highly recommend you try this story on for size.
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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.

Rating: 5/5
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Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
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.
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on 9 June 2016
Oh man, this book and I didn't get along. There were bits I appreciated, the dark, gritty, almost post-apocalyptic atmosphere, the idea behind the pain mage, the fact that the writing is pretty crisp, and such. But I just had a lot of ragey issues with it.

Now, I'll acknowledge that Rojan was an anti-hero and normally I can handle, even like an anti-hero. But combined with the sexism in the book, it was more than I could handle and still come out liking the character or the book.

We'll start with the easy one. Rojan is a womanizing jerk. If he wants to avoid monogamy, fine, but he lies to his female partners and has NO RESPECT FOR THEM. Now, again, I don't have to like everything about a hero. So, I could acknowledge this fact as an unfortunate part of the character's character and move on. Unfortunately, I don't think Francis Knight respects women either. Because there are so many ways women are disrespected, often in unnecessary and maybe even unintentional ways in this book that I couldn't also accept Rojan's sexism as a simple character trait. Instead it became one more symptom in the diseased whole.

About 30% into this book I stopped and sighed. I sighed and said to myself, "Oh, this is ANOTHER book pretty much entirely predicated on the victimization of girls and women." (God, I am so tired of how common this is.) Basically all of the victims of violence (that does not need to differentiate by gender, the magic doesn't know the difference) are female. I'll give Knight credit for having a few token boy victims; that's more than a lot of authors like this manage, but tokens really are all they are. At one point someone asks the main character how many little girls he sees running around and the answer is none, only boys. All the girls have been kidnapped to be abused. So, the reader gets this endless parade of unnecessarily gendered victims. Why only girl victims and male abuser? Gee, couldn't be that old misogynistic idea that women are victims and men are in control?

Then we have the constant background rapes. Repeat after me, sexual violence does not always occur in conjunction with physical violence. Pain magic needs pain. That's all, just pain. But women, girls really (the oldest they rescue from being raped was 12), are constantly being raped in the background. Sure, I get it. The old prison experiment; given unequal power the group holding the upper hand will move toward taking more liberties and a group of men holding a group of women are likely to take liberties with the women. I get the idea. But a reader can know it happens without being slapped in the face with it over and over and over again. Luckily none of it was overly graphic, but it's constantly there. Women reduced not only to their victim status, but their sexual victim status. Honestly, I felt this was more emphasized than the beatings, which were what was necessary for the magic to work. And honestly, with a brainwashed and complicit victim (because they all become willing eventually, WTF) rape wouldn't even be a very effective way to produce pain! I honestly thought it would have been a stronger book if Knight concentrated on pain, not the horror of victimhood. (Make no mistake; it's the second one that is apparently important here.)

What's more, with all these rapes happening behind conveniently closed doors, or overheard, or having just happened there is no accounting of who is doing the raping. One assumes mages and the guards, but you never actually see who it is. It's like women are out there getting raped by the air. Hey look, women in the wild, in their natural state—raped. Notably not, hey look, a man is raping a girl. There is only victim in this scenario, no identified predator. Men remain blameless and women alone associated with the event.

Then there is Jake. OMFG, I had so many problems with the portrayal of Jake. She's supposed to be strong, because she's a strong fighter. But the man who knows her best undermines that by claiming it's all show, all fake. So, she's not actually a strong fighter. Couldn't have that. But apparently she's not strong mentally either. The second they enter danger she falls apart and becomes a whimpering, teary mess. Why? Because she's been repeatedly raped since childhood, of course, and as a result she is afraid of touch. The man she loves and who loves her can't even touch her. But good old Rojan forces himself on her all the same. Sure, it's a soft little kiss, but a soft little kiss to a haphephobic is traumatizing. Plus, this sudden need to kiss her, even knowing she would in no way be receptive, was in the middle of a dangerous situation. It made no sense at all. But then it got worse. The best friend/love shows up and got angry, manhandling her and ultimately running off to betray her because she allowed Rojan to kiss her and not him. Because he had been the patient one, the kind one, the friend, the nice guy. He had earned her and letting another man touch her (ignoring that it was forced) was a betrayal of him. No concern for the fact that she's essentially falling apart. And guess what, he's rewarded for his buttholeness by getting the girl in the end.

Then there was Rojan's love for Jake. He firmly believed he can get any woman in bed. In fact, he was only interested in women until they get in bed with him. Since Jake was the one woman he couldn't have he fell in love with her. He basically chose her over every other person in the city. He sacrificed for her in the big climatic scene. It's real love, apparently. But he was thinking of getting in another woman's knickers literally on waking from that same event. Plus, this was the last sentence of the book; just to make sure we know what's important.

The single strong woman in the book was a prostitute who had escaped the rape mages. But even then, she's a prostitute because she's come to view abuse and sex as normal. She needed it, so even in freedom she sought it out. See guys, it's not so bad to rape and abuse women. In the end, they love it for real even crave that stuff. So, have at it. The single woman Rojan didn't want to have sex with is a complete b/witch, so, you know, any woman who won't sleep with you can't also be a nice person. The single non-sexual girl given any agency turned out to be Rojan's sister and sexually unavailable to him anyway. The innocent victim that prompted him to go into such danger? His niece, all because he felt guilty for watching his mother die. (See, female victims, victims, victims everywhere.)

My God, if I thought about it I could probably go on and find more example. I could probably look into the fact that the prevailing religion worshiped a goddess, but it was wholly controlled and subverted by male priests. (No indication why only men held positions of power in a female based-religion, but whatever.) So, even female deities fall under the purview of human men. What chance to mere mortal women have? Basically every aspect of this book is infused with problematic sex and gender issues that I'd bet dollars to donuts Knight didn't even know she was writing. Unfortunately it was so thick I could barely even dig through it to find the rest of the story. I cannot tell you how disappointed I was to discover the Knight is a woman. I almost don't believe it, but then misogyny can be as internalized for women as men.

Ultimately, I decided this is a man's book. An author wrote a book incorporating a lot of problematic, but common ideas about women for entertainment of men, who would likely relate to them without even noticing them. But you know, I'm not a man. I noticed and I wasn't amused. On how much I enjoyed this book, I'd give it a one star. But other than some repetition, the writing is pretty good, so I'll reluctantly stretch it to a two star.

Note: I borrowed it from my local library
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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.

J.L. Dobias
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on 23 May 2013
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I've read more fantasy/crime mash ups that I ever thought possible. I've read about PIs of all types; Zombies, Witches, Wizards, Vampires, the list goes on, but invariably they are set in the underbelly of our own world. `Fade to Black' by Francis Knight is a book that follows Rojan Dizon a PI in the city of Mahala. This is a fantastical city ruled by The Ministry who keeps the population down. Rojan is quite happy to keep his head down and earn a few quid finding people. He is one of a few remaining Pain Mages whose magical powers are enhanced when he hurts himself, you can imagine that he does not like to practise too much, but when his Niece is kidnapped, it is a case of no pain, no gain.

The ideas in `Fade' are great. The city itself is a wonderful character, built in a relatively narrow mountain pass, the people have dug down to expand, rather than out. This means that the poor live in the polluted lower city, the rich get to feel the natural light up top. The concept of Pain Mages is also well thought out; what is someone like Rojan willing to do for family - his power increases exponentially with the amount of pain he inflicts on himself.

As this is book one of Rojan's journey, it does feel at times more of a travelogue than a full story. We are introduced to a few characters, but mostly it a story told on the run from place to place. Whilst the city of Mahala shines, the characters are not given quite enough to develop. At its core `Fade' is a Sam Spade feeling crime novel set in a fantastical world; Rojan quips his way through various violent encounters. For this reason I found it a fun and breezy read. The `Big Bad' is often mentioned, but seldom seen in `Fade'. Not enough threat is put on the characters to make their ordeal satisfactory. With more adventures with Rojan planned, I would hope a sense of real menace would be ratcheted up to give future encounters more tension. Still a very fun read for fantasy fans.
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Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
As a debut novel and the first in a projected trilogy, Francis Knight's "Fade to Black" gets off to a good start.

Her vision of a vertical, multi-tiered city with it`s defined social strata and dark, underlying secrets to match, has an almost Dickensian/Gustave Doré feel to it, albeit inspired - as she acknowledges - by "Blade Runner". Rojan Dizon, the anti-hero and lead-character of the story, is a little clichéd in a hard-boiled detective-fiction way; I`ve encountered this mix of genres before - I`d be surprised if other readers of dark fantasy haven`t - but it works well enough.
Rojan is a small-time PI of sorts, dealing with missing persons and runaways, a choice he makes in order to exploit his own dark secret - he's a pain-mage and that's a trait that could get him into serious trouble if it were known to the authorities. When he gets involved in the abduction of his niece, he finds himself up to his neck in a world of dystopian nightmare... otherwise it wouldn't be such a good read, would it?
Rojan is an interesting character; sexist, flawed, but generally a good sort, our first-person window into this world.
The writing is fairly strong in character description and development, though I found myself re-reading some paragraphs - I`m quite good at visualising environments, but Knight's concepts of the city layout were at times difficult to take in - there's a fine sense of the kind of corrupt society, religion and history that forms Mahala.
The subjects dealt with are, on the whole, very dark indeed.
As this is intended as part of a trilogy, I`m assessing the book with that in mind.

Though I liked the novel, Knight could do with tightening up some of her prose; a little more clarity in description of surroundings, how things work, etc., would improve it`s impact, but on the whole this was a good foundation for the other novels to follow on; the fact that I want to know what happens in the next book is a good indication to me that Knight has delivered a sterling piece of urban fantasy.
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Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
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.
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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.
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Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
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
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