There's been an anticipatory buzz surrounding this novel ever since the synopsis appeared on the internet a few months back. Since then, advance reviews have done nothing to diminish SFF fans' interest in this book. Hence, I was quite eager to finally get the chance to sit down and read Nights of Villjamur. Of course, the first ARC sent my way got lost in the mail, so I was forced to wait a while before a copy ultimately reached my mailbox.
Mark Charan Newton is best known for his work as an editor at Solaris. And yet, the first volume of The Legends of the Red Sun is his second novel to date, with a sequel on the way.
An ice age known as the Freeze is gradually settling over the land, forcing thousands of refugees to seek shelter in Villjamur. Faced with an impending doom which is foretold to last decades, the Emperor commits suicide, thus forcing his estranged elder daughter to ascend the throne. But the manipulative Chancellor is pulling strings within the Council to assume control of the empire. Meanwhile, high-profile councillors are being murdered, and Investigator Rumex Jeryd of the Inquisition must unmask the killer. Yet as the investigation progresses, Jeryd uncovers a conspiracy that will put his own life at risk. With the coming of this long cold winter at their doorsteps, reports from the northern islands indicate that a mysterious enemy is decimating the population everywhere. Members of the elite Night Guard are sent to investigate this genocide, while secretive Cultists embark on a journey from which there might be no coming back.
With so many disparate yet linked storylines, Nights of Villjamur is an ambitious work of fantasy. The novel is heavily influenced by China Miéville, while you can see that Jack Vance's Dying Earth was the inspiration for the setting. To a lesser degree, one can also perceive the influence of authors such as George R. R. Martin and Steven Erikson in various aspects of this one.
The worldbuilding is doubtless the facet in which Mark Charan Newton excels the most. À la Miéville, Villjamur, a dark and brooding metropolis, becomes a character in its own right. The city descriptions are evocative, and the author has a knack for creating adroit imagery that makes Villjamur come alive. In addition, there are a number of cool and interesting concepts in this novel, chief among those the Cultists devoting their lives to the study of ancient artifacts and technology.
Characterization is probably the aspect which sometimes leaves a little to be desired, however. On the one hand, some characters such as Brynd, Jeryd, and to a certain extent Tuya, are well-drawn and three-dimensional, while others such as Randur, Eir and Chancellor Urtica are more than a little clichéd and quite predictable. À la R. Scott Bakker in Prince of Nothing, Newton fell into the trap of bogging down the narrative with a lot of introspection and inner monologues. These musings, though not as spiritual and philosophical as Bakker's, often get in the way of what is essentially a good story by slowing down the rhythm of the book. I feel that the author may have attempted to do too much by exploring various themes and social issues while laying the groundwork for the rest of the series and mapping out a complex array of plotlines.
That introspection wasn't much of a problem early on, but it became a bit more bothersome when I realized that it was to the detriment of the story as a whole. Some characters and events could have used more work. As far as characters are concerned, the entire storyline devoted to Chancellor Urtica was way too Palpatinesque for my taste. Most elements involved in the Chancellor's storyline appeared somewhat contrived, and his machinations succeed too easily to be fully credible. The same could be said of Randur and Eir's plotline.
Some engaging ideas and concepts were introduced, but Newton doesn't elaborate a whole lot on them. I would have loved to learn more about the various sects of Cultists, which for me were the most fascinating feature found in this novel. More information about the Ovinists, the Night Guard, everything Caveside, the Realm Gate, Jurro the Dawnir, and the coming of the ice age would have added several layers to the overall plot.
Newton's noirish prose works well and sets the mood just right, especially in the scenes taking place in the city of Villjamur. But Nights of Villjamur is not a fast read. Not that it's boring, mind you, but this is not a book that grabs hold of you from the start and won't let go. This is a story that reveals itself in increments, slowly building up toward a more fast-moving finale. As I mentioned, though, the social commentary underlying the narrative and the exploration of themes such as humanitarian issues and love do slow down the pace to the detriment of the storytelling.
Having said that, Newton closes the show with a bang, setting the stage for what is to come in the sequel. Although a number of plotlines were quite predictable, Newton demonstrated that he has a few surprises up his sleeve, which bodes well for volume 2. I have a feeling that the absence of resolution at the end of the novel might bother some readers, but I don't think Newton could have brought Nights of Villjamur to a close in any other way. All in all, the ending was consistant with the structure of the tale.
Nights of Villjamur is a solid effort featuring a variety of interesting concepts and storylines. As I said, the stage is set for the sequel, and I'm curious to see where Mark Charan Newton will take this story. A little less introspection on the characters' part and a little more focus on the plot elements which give this novel its "flavor" instead of concentrating on the social commentary would make volume 2 a more compelling and page-turning read.
The final verdict: 7.25/10