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Book Review: Nights of Villjamur by Mark Charan Newton

Nights of VilljamurGenre: Epic Fantasy, Dying Earth
Hardcover: 448 pages
Publisher: Spectra
Publication Date: June 29, 2010
ISBN-10: 034552084X
ISBN-13: 978-0345520845
Author’s Website: Mark Charan Newton

In Nights of Villjamur, publicist turned author Mark Charan Newton paints a picture of a dark and gloomy city facing an impending ice age, even as it is rift from within politically. Villjamur is the city at the heart of the Land of the Red Sun, the home of its emperor and parliamentary government. As such, it attracts all types, and as the ice age rapidly approaches it is swamped by refuges from its far flung island holdings.

One of these refugees is randy Randur, a rake and charlatan who was hired by the palace to become a dance and sword instructor to the youngest daughter of the Emperor. From its citizenry come the character Jeryd, the rumel (a humanoid race) investigator who must find the cause of a string of a political deaths and Brynd, the albino captain of the guards who must disguise his insecurities and sexuality in order to best serve the Empire he loves. Each of these men finds themselves embroiled in a city in turmoil, a city that they love or come to love, despite all its faults.

The chief protagonist of the story is Villjamur herself, a city both beautiful and dark, a city of legend and long-hidden secrets. It is a wondrous city, presented to us by the use of multiple character viewpoints, of which the aforementioned are only the primary three. Newton never stays on one plot line too long, and switches between perspectives rapidly and often, entering the mind of hero and villain alike.

The “magic” of the city of Villjamur is a lost science, and there are hints here and there that the Land of the Red Sun is Earth, hundreds of thousands of years in the future, when our sun has become a red giant, where familiar climate and most history have been lost. The human history of the novel has the flavor of Dune of time being deeply buried by its length and weight, that we can only barely comprehend the people of today. Even the races are different, and several other species of beings co-exist with Homo sapiens, including the tail-wagging hominid rumel, and the winged raptors known as garudas.

It is fairly easy to get hooked on the story ofNights of Villjamur even before you truly understand what it is. In the first fifty or so pages, there are two skirmishes between armies, a murder, a suicide, and three fairly graphic sex scenes of both the heterosexual and homosexual variety. Though the sex is something I felt the narrative could have done without, or at least left less well-described, it certainly helps keep the reader reading, if only for its appeal to our voyeuristic natures. It was the murder mystery of a politically popular man, as investigated by Jeryd, which kept this reviewer reading. It is not obvious from the story just who did it, as is often the case in epic fantasies, nor does it solution entirely rest on some unknown piece of magic previously unknown to the reader. The clues are all there, if the reader looks carefully enough.

The political establishment of the story is a thinly veiled analogue to the U.K.’s, where Newton resides. Newton makes some political points about the plight of the worker and the gap between socio-economic classes and gets a tad pedantic about it, though it is easily glossed over in the face of the multiple, intricately threaded plot lines.

The writing of Newton also takes a bit of getting used to. The author enjoys passing off fragments as complete sentences, and while this is oddly effective, it also occasionally left me wondering what Newton actually said. Coupled with odd or non-existent transitions between sentences, it makes for a unique style of writing, one that the reader will either hate or love for its oddity and uniqueness. Newton’s dialogue can be a tad wooden. He has flair for describing scene, one likely honed in the publicist’s trenches, but sometimes character’s conversations lack the grace of real conversation. They become merely a tool for Newton to ensure that his characters said something to one another when a scene occurs in which there is more than one character. It might also be worth mentioning that Newton has no qualms about using swearing, particularly words that will be offensive to some readers. I felt that its use only solidified the ties to a “dying earth” type of tale, but others may found it anachronistic or downright unnecessary.

There is also the issue of the weird interview that is chapter 45. In form it lacked any real linkage to the rest of the novel, and while one of the characters is the one being interviewed, its inclusion thrust me out of the flow of the narrative, just as the story was coming to its climax. Creative this may be, but for the average reader like me, it just felt out of place and awkward.

Newton’s characters live in amoral grey area, so anyone entering this story looking for the type of hero or heroine usually associated with epic fantasy will be sorely disappointed. In truth, this story is more epic in the traditional sense than its contemporaries. It sees the world from multiple points of view, has a broader theme than simple good or evil. It is the Iliad from the Trojan’s point-of-view, or more simply put – this is the grimmer, seedier, less palatable side of epic fantasy that Beowulf’s first two parts exemplify.

I found the novel to be decent, though there are enough issues with the story that I cannot recommend it wholeheartedly. Some of Newton’s innovations were good, some were bad, and some just were nonsensical (e.g. the interview). Readers are either going to really love Nights of Villjamur or really hate it, and only a few will find a middle ground on it. I found that middle ground, to the point where I will admit to having liked it, but being unwilling to recommend it to others without significant caveats.