The Book of Transformations is the third installment in the Legends of the Red Sun series, sequel to Nights of Villjamur and City of Ruin. The second volume was an improvement on the first and set the stage for what appeared to be an exciting book three.
Here's the blurb:
A new and corrupt Emperor seeks to rebuild the ancient structures of Villjamur to give the people of the city hope in the face of great upheaval and an oppressing ice age. But when a stranger called Shalev arrives, empowering a militant underground movement, crime and terror becomes rampant.
The Inquisition is always one step behind, and military resources are spread thinly across the Empire. So Emperor Urtica calls upon cultists to help construct a group to eliminate those involved with the uprising, and calm the populace – the Villjamur Knights. But there’s more to Knights than just phenomenal skills and abilities – each have a secret that, if exposed, could destroy everything they represent.
Investigator Fulcrom of the Villjamur Inquisition is given the unenviable task of managing the Knights, but his own skills are tested when a mysterious priest, who has travelled from beyond the fringes of the Empire, seeks his help. The priest’s existence threatens the church, and his quest promises to unravel the fabric of the world. And in a distant corner of the Empire, the enigmatic cultist Dartun Súr steps back into this world, having witnessed horrors beyond his imagination. Broken, altered, he and the remnants of his order are heading back to Villjamur.
And all eyes turn to the Sanctuary City, for Villjamur’s ancient legends are about to be shattered...
Peter F. Hamilton once claimed that genre labels just don't apply to Mark Charan Newton. And that's certainly true for this novel as much as for the previous two installments. Problem is, by daring to be different from the norm in several ways, the author often puts himself in a position in which the habitual genre points of reference don't apply. At times, this can result in unanticipated originality and rewarding scenes. Unfortunately, other sequences can be off-putting or failures to launch for the very same reasons.
In the past, I always felt that the aspect at which Newton excels the most was the worldbuilding. His evocative narrative made Villjamur and Villiren come alive, both cities becoming characters in their own right. I was disappointed that this facet of the author's talent was not exploited in The Book of Transformations. Indeed, as was the case in Nights of Villjamur, the characters' introspection and the often heavy-handed social commentary got in the way of what was essentially a very good tale.
I was happy to discover more about the Cultists devoting their lives to the study of ancient artifacts and technology. More revelations about the alien invading forces were also welcome, yet in retrospect not much was gleaned in the end. Which, truth to tell, was more than a little odd. With the coming ice age and aliens coming from another dimension, one would think that these storylines would have taken center stage instead of being relegated to secondary plotlines to be explored in the fourth volume.
Let it not be said that Mark Charan Newton is not a daring author! After making one of the main characters gay, in The Book of Transformations one of the principal POV protagonists is a transsexual circus entertainer. Overall, I felt that Brynd's homosexuality was well-portrayed in City of Ruin and it added another dimension to a multilayered novel. I'm afraid the same cannot be said of Lan's portrayal in this book. Not that it isn't well-done, though I don't possess enough knowledge on the subject of transgender folk to judge whether or not Newton did as good a job with Lan as he did with Brynd. It's just that Lan's storyline and the introspection associated with it took way too much space in this novel. And with what appears to be the end of the world coming, I felt that there were bigger fish to fry as far as storylines are concerned.
As was the case with its predecessors, Newton's noirish prose once again works well and sets the mood just right. The pace, however, is sluggish throughout but at the very end, with too much instrospection bogging down the narrative at every turn. Having said that, Mark Charan Newton, as always, remains true to himself. Social and political commentary and the exploration of themes such as humanitarian issues, equality, etc, will always be present in his work. Hence, if one doesn't necessarily share the author's political views, then certain aspects of his work might occasionally put them off.
The characterization was uneven. Some characters are well-defined and genuine. Investigator Fulcrom is a good example of a three-dimensional protagonist, but we spend too much time inside his head and the inevitable love story that takes place was too predictable for my taste. The Villjamur Knights was an incredibly cool idea, but in the end the execution left a bit to be desired. I loved the idea of creating genetically improved superheroes, but they did very little for the most part. I felt that Shalev, who is so important to the overall plot of The Book of Transformations, was underused and should have been fleshed out more. The same goes for Ulryk, whose actions will shape the way the rest of the series will go.
I opined that City of Ruin demonstrated that there is much more to the Legends of the Red Sun than met the eye. Revelations and mysteries hinted at a blend of fantasy and science fiction elements that could set this series apart from its peers. Although The Book of Transformations failed to live up to that potential, Mark Charan Newton ends the novel with a bang, making me quite eager to discover what comes next. I can only hope that cool ideas and fascinating concepts will trump the introspection and the social and political commentary that plagued this books. If Newton can achieve the right balance between these aspects, the way he did with City of Ruin, the fourth volume could well be a doozy!