Sunday, May 30, 2010

Nights of Villjamur - Mark Charan Newton

Author blogs are strange things when you think about it. If I consider how much time I have to put into this blog for a modest two posts a week, a real active author blog must be a horrible sink of time for a writer. Still, I follow quite a few of them. Some I follow religiously and some blogs I follow, are by authors I haven't actually read any books of. Those are a minority though, right now there are only two left on the list. One is John Scalzi, who's blog Whatever probably transcends a regular author blog. The other is Mark Charan Newton. When I came across a paperback copy of Nights of Villjamur on my last visit to the bookstore I decided to change that. Did I just say I read an authors book because I like his blog? Why, yes. And I will have you know it makes more sense than picking it because it has a pretty cover. At least I know this man can write coherent sentences. Right. On with the review.

Night of Villjamur is the fist book in the Legends of the Red Sun series. The second book City of Ruin will be released in early June in the UK. As the title suggests much of the story is set in the city of Villjamur, the capital of an empire that controls large parts of the Boreal Archipelago. Powerful this state may be, it does face some serious challenges. An ice age is approaching, or rather a long winter predicted to last for several decades. This is not unexpected and people have had time to prepare. It will be a time of great hardship for the less fortunate citizens however and many have flocked to the capital to seek shelter. On top of that the empire is lead by a paranoid emperor, a man less who is becoming less able to control affairs of state by the day. In practice the council is taking the important decisions and this institution is controlled by the manipulative chancellor Urtica.

The chancellor's manipulations touch the lives of three subjects of the empire. Night Guard commander Brynd Latharea is sent to the distant corners of the empire to investigate rumours of a violent alien invasion. Meanwhile senior investigator of the Inquisition Rumex Jeryd is charged with investigating the death of one of Urtica's colleagues in the council. At court a young womaniser using the name Randur Estevu has wiggled his way into the presence of the emperor's younger daughter Eir. The citizens of Villjamur are certainly living in interesting times.

Newton himself seems to have a thing for blogs himself. Praise for this book includes blurbs from Speculative Horizons, Graeme's Fantasy Book Review, and Fantasy Book Critic. His website quotes even more book blogs. The impact of book blogs on genre fiction is undeniable of course but you rarely see an author or publisher pay this much attention. Quite a difference from authors like L.E. Modesitt Jr. who, given the wide variety in quality, is more reluctant to read online reviews of his own work. Perhaps a bit of a generational gap here?

The response to this book, online at least, had been overwhelmingly positive. It would appear that I have once again manages not to read one of the buzz releases of 2009. I can certainly see why Nights of Villjamur got such a positive reception. Newton is not afraid to show his influences in this book, which clearly include Jack Vance and China MiƩville, but he gives these ideas a certain twist. Villjamur with several sentient races, obscure cults, arcane technology, odd climate and strange architecture is a gorgeous backdrop. Newton includes New Weird elements, horror and more classical fantasy themes into his tale without firmly fitting into any of these categories. The story includes fascinating world building, multiple points of view, court politics and cultist intrigue and all of that in a book of less than 500 pages. You'd almost believe it is too much to handle for one novel.

You wouldn't be entirely wrong believing that either. As much as I liked this book I do think that in the end it leaves the reader hanging. What the book does, is resolve part of the political intrigue Urtica is involved in. I think of his as the central character in this novel. The linchpin of the story. His part in the novel is not that large though. He is a point of view character but does not receive too much attention. Much more of the book is dedicated to the exploits of the trio I mentioned above. Each these characters is affected by Urtica's actions but none of them this chapter in their lives seem to be complete. Jeryd has not worked though all the implications of his finds yet, Brynd still only has a limited idea of the military threat to the empire, Randur has not achieved what he intended to do in Villjamur. There is clearly a "... to be continued" for each of them in this novel, it would have been nice if the book had been a little more self-contained.

That being said, there is no doubt whatsoever that I will be reading the next volume in this series at some point. Newton leaves some interesting hints about the alien invaders and the origin of sentient life on the world of Villjamur to explore in the next book. I also have to admit that the stories of Jeryd and Brynd sucked me into this book. Brynd's story line in particular leaves me with the feeling there is quite a bit more to tell about him. In fact, the way Urtica keeps him out of Villjamur and the discovery of the military threat to the empire could be viewed as the idea set up to launch into a second book. Randur's story was a bit more problematic in my eyes. His motivation, he is mainly driven by guilt, is not entirely convincing. Or perhaps not fully enough explored to make it convincing. I think Newton has some work left to do here. All in all there is plenty of interesting stuff to follow up on.

So how do we rate this first Legend of the Red Sun? Newton creates a fascinating world, with a number of wonderfully grey characters. It's very easy to loose yourself in his creation. On the other hand and he leaves so much of the main characters' personal journeys unexplored that the way he follows up on this novel will have a major impact on the reader's opinion of this book. That's not necessarily a good thing for a first book in a series. The quality of the writing in this book leaves no doubt Newton is quite capable of delivering a good sequel however. All things considered, Nights of Villjamur is a great read but be prepared to be left wanting more.

P.S. I had a weird association with the name Urtica. His name is also the name of a genus of plants that includes the common nettle. Urtica strikes me as a poisonous character, he doesn't sting, he kills. In short, not the material you can brew a nice pot of tea from. Any one have any idea if this was intentional?

Book Details
Title: Nights of Villjamur
Author: Mark Charan Newton
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 497
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-330-46166-5
First published: 2009


  1. Thanks for the fair review! As for Urtica - yes indeed. Jeryd's first name, is Rumex - genus of docks, which is known to be used against nettle stings.

  2. Ah.. that makes more sense now. Names of plants in English are always a bit of a problem for me. They are generally not included in the vocabulary they teach in school. If it hadn't been for the Latin names I would have missed it entirely.

  3. Nice review! You've certainly increased my interest in this book. :-)
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  4. Thank you :)

    I think I am going to have to have a look at book two sometime soon.