Sunday, October 30, 2011

An actual Sunday Review Post, 10/30/2011

Gah. I am exhausted. Who knew that bugs and pumpkins and chili could take so much out of a guy?

Actually, now that I read that, it sounds really ... wrong. Sorry.

So, I promised you a review of Mark Charan Newton's Nights of Villjamur, and here it is.

I said, on Friday, that the book was solidly good, but not excellent. First off, Newton is treading some well trodden ground here. We have an empire on a world which is about to enter into an ice age. Everyone knows that the ice age is coming, and the empire has been preparing for the coming disaster. So - empire in danger; we've seen that before. An ice age - not a common disaster, but not unheard of. There are forces within the empire which seek to turn the disaster to their own ends - in particular, there is a conspiracy attempting to overthrow the Emperor. This produces lots and lots of nice politics - but political plots are a dime a dozen. We have a detective who stumbles onto the conspiracy while doing an investigation of the mysterious death of a council member. Ok, a police procedural. Plus, there's a romance plot involving the sister of the Empress (the Emperor throws himself off a balcony a couple of chapters in. This isn't my spoiler - it's on the book flap) and the man she thinks she's hired to teach her dancing and sword fighting. (There's a fair bit of mistaken identity throughout the book.) There's a military plot involving a variety of threats, including zombies and giant crab-like monster things. There are cultists who accumulate relics, which seem to be clearly some sort of advanced technology - perhaps the remnants of an earlier, much more advanced, society? So, not only is Newton treading ground that has been trodden before, but he is also treading it in many many different directions. All of these plots do blend together, somewhat, but the whole left me a little baffled and breathless. I felt like saying, "damn it, man, pick one and follow it through!"

The police procedural worked as the central piece of the book, and it was clearly the most complete element. It had a defined beginning, middle, and end. However, it was a "we, the reader, know more than the detective does" sort of procedural - and I don't like those. Also, I felt that the mystery was a little weak in other ways too, chiefly motivation for the murderer. Additionally, the police bit featured a particularly nasty bit of betrayal - good writing, but uncomfortable. That was an odd bit where an excellent piece of writing made me not really like a whole bit of plot - weird.

The politics were the best part of the novel. I really like political novels, and the politics here were murky and twisty - exactly the sort of thing I like. The motivation for the villain here was clear as a bell - in order to take over as Emperor, he needs to remove the existing dynasty. Watching him plot was delightful, and he was an excellent villain. If he had a mustache, he would have twirled it. Jeremy Irons could easily play him in the film adaptation, and chew scenery to his heart's content. Seeing him get his comeupance will be delightful.

Newton's characters in general are really well written. Given the extent that this is a character driven novel, that's a good thing. Poorly written characters would have doomed this novel. Newton offers us a broad cast that we can care about. We can root for the cocky young sword and dance instructor learning to love for the first time, or for the young rulers learning that there is more to their empire than the palace they grew up in. We can watch the slow re-building of the relationship between the detective and his estranged wife. We can thrill to the exploits of the military commander facing unfaceable odds. We can ponder the motives of mysterious cultists, engaged in byzantine plots of their own imagining. All of these myriad characters make the book worth reading, and compensate many many times for the problems I've mentioned.

The other thing that Newton does that I found interesting (and also frustrating). The empire has several different species in it - humans, and Rumels (who are bipedal, mammalian, furred, have tails, and are very long lived), and Guaradas (who are bird type things), and possibly other things hiding in the wings. All of these different species of character make for some interesting dynamics - how does it all fit together?

The frustrating thing about these alien species is that Newton never really explains how it all fits together, or where the various species came from, or offer us a glossary or a "history" of the Empire - the bits that might, tacked onto the end of a book like this, fill in the gaps that a reader like me really craves. There isn't even a map of the empire, or a suggestion of how large it is, relative to the world it's on. Perhaps a map would spoil a big reveal in a future book - "ha ha! Look, they're really on Earth!" - but given the distances people were travelling between islands, and the suggestion that there are hostile forces just outside the empire - I wanted a map. These are little things, but they accumulate.

My final complaint about the book is that it doesn't end satisfyingly. It's clear that Newton is writing an Epic (I feel some justice in using the term, because deities do play a role in the novel, if not directly), and so the novel ends somewhat abruptly, just as the conspiracy plot comes to fruition in one place, and the heroic military expedition is retreating from sure and certain death in another place.  I know the second book has been published (because it was seeing Book 2 which prompted me to pick up Book 1), and I'm not opposed, per se, to a serial narrative - but, on top of the other little things ... Well. The strong characters will draw me back into the second book, but it will be a "pick up when I see it" rather than a "hunt it down because I must have it" type thing.