Excerpt from Max Frei's THE STRANGER

Thanks to the good people at The Overlook Press, here's an excerpt from Max Frei's The Stranger. This novel looks like an interesting read. . . For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.


A dark wave of pain enveloped my head. It wasn’t simply pain, it was death. What imbecile said that death is a soothing balm? Death is nauseating helplessness and infinite physical pain, gnawing the body into tiny pieces with the voracious teeth of oblivion. In any case, that’s what the death of Captain Giatta was like.

But I’m not Captain Giatta, thought someone next to me. No, not "someone," of course. That was me doing the thinking, me, Max, a living being, not one of the rough, sinewy scraps of the body of the unfortunate Tasherian captain. Realizing this bare fact held out the promise of salvation.

The alien sensations subsided, and my own returned to me slowly and solemnly, like lazy dancers to Ravel’s Bolero. To see, to breathe, to feel the hard seat of the chair with my own backside-it was wonderful! My clothes were wet through, but even that seemed like something miraculous. I thought of the ridiculous local saying "The dead don’t sweat," and smiled.

Juffin got up from his crouching position and looked at me in amazement. The cursed mother-of-pearl belt flopped onto the carpet.

"Everything all right, Max?"

"I’m checking. And the captain? Is he dead?"

"No. You saved him, boy."

"Saved him? Me? Sinning Magicians, how could I have done that?"

"You took on half of his pain for your own. A strong person is quite capable of surviving half of it. I’ve never seen anything so strange-the belt itself was pretending, Max. It was putting on an act, like a regular cunning human being. And when I had ascertained that it was already harmless-well, you now know it all."

I nodded, exhausted. My head was spinning, and it wasn’t so much that the world seemed to be receding from me as that it was trembling like jello. Juffin’s voice seemed to reach me from someplace very far away.

"Come on. Take a gulp of your favorite potion."

Juffin poured some Elixir of Kaxar into my mouth. That meant I would be in tiptop shape in no time. Soon the world did stopped quivering, although I still didn’t experience my usual buoyancy.

"You both underwent the same thing, but it will no doubt be some time before the captain begins to function normally again," Juffin observed. "Never mind, we’ll turn him over to Sir Abilat now. You’ll see, by morning he will have recovered. I think everything will be much easier when our brave captain begins to talk. By the way, Max, now you can imagine what the effects are when some daredevil begins casting spells while wearing the Earring of Oxalla. Do you remember asking why they were afraid? Well, there’s no better answer to your own question than personal experience. Well done, Max!"

"I didn’t do anything. I’m a victim of circumstance," I sighed. "I had no choice about whether I wanted to save the poor bloke or not. Now if I had really done all of that of my own free will-"

"That’s just fruitless sophistry," Juffin declared dismissively, with a wave of his hand. "If you did it, you did it. That’s what matters. You don’t really have to know exactly what you’re doing or why. You did it because you could. And that’s why I say you’ve done well. Am I making myself clear?"

"Clear enough. Give me some more Elixir, or you’ll be seeing the corpse of the great hero by dinnertime. You can add it to your stew of dried Magicians."

"Take it, but don’t get carried away," Juffin handed me the bottle. "Listen, you probably haven’t heard the news yet. Now you can buy this potion in any store, since magic of the eighth degree is all you need to brew it. It didn’t occur to me to tell you before."

"Now I’ll never die," I said with a blissful smile. "No one’s going to wipe me off the face of the earth. Finally, my life has a meaning! I’ll drink a bottle of Elixir a day, and reach enlightenment."
"That sounds like our good old Max," Juffin announced happily. "Just a moment ago there was some pale, washed-out shadow in our midst . . . Still, I think you ought to rest. Go home, try to sleep, or at least just lounge around for a while. We’ll manage until morning."

"Go away at the most interesting moment? Do you take me for a fool?"

"There won’t be any more surprises tonight, Max. Kofa and I will sniff out what we can, and we’ll wait till Captain Giatta wakes up. I’ve already dismissed Melamori for the day, and Lonli-Lokli is heading for home right after the investigation at the port. I’ll let Melifaro go, too, as soon as he tells me the name of our deceased friend. You, Max, would be getting at least a dozen Days of Freedom from Care if it weren’t for this blasted case. So, homeward, march! That’s an order. Can you stand up?"

"After three slugs of Elixir? I could do a jig!" I said.

I stood up-then collapsed in a heap on the floor. My legs knew what they were supposed to do, but they refused to obey.

"I suspected as much," Juffin sighed. "Well, let me give you a hand."

"Strange, I felt fine until I tried to stand up," I said, leaning on his shoulder. "Now I feel more like a bag of potatoes than a human being."

"Never mind, it will pass," the boss said, trying to console me. "By morning you’ll be as right as rain. Be here by noon, all right?"

"Of course! I can be here even earlier."

"That’s not necessary. I’m no good as a nurse. I hate looking after invalids."

Juffin stuffed me in the back seat of the official amobiler, relieved to get me off his hands. And home I went.


I was able to get out of the amobiler on my own devices and made it to my living room without too much effort. Things weren’t going badly, all things considered. After a while, I sent a call to the Sated Skeleton. I had just managed to hobble to the bathroom when the delivery boy arrived, so I had to turn around and go back. My rate of progress was nothing to brag about.

I stripped off my clothes, still damp with sweat, splashed around in the water, and then had something to eat. An hour later I felt much better. My exhaustion gradually turned into a pleasant fatigue, so I crawled into bed. I fell asleep before midnight. Some night owl I was!

My sweet dream visited me afresh. Melamori appeared at the window, paused, then started to approach. I tried to move, but as always in these marvelous dreams, I could only just raise myself off my pillow. Melamori came still closer, and sat down beside me. I lifted my hand and tried to embrace my vision. The vision didn’t protest.

I still don’t know whether it was the unpleasant recent events that were to blame, or whether the hefty portion of Elixir of Kaxar had given me unprecedented strength. This time, though, my heavy, unwieldy body, and she who was the cause of my grief, both obeyed me. When the vision of Melamori was finally under my blanket, I mentally congratulated myself on my victory.

Then something happened that couldn’t be explained by any stretch of the imagination. I got scratched. I actually got scratched; and the culprit was the sharp edge of a medallion adorning the lovely chest of my wondrous vision. For a moment, I stared bewildered at the tiny droplet of blood on my palm. Then I woke up. At that very instant, I received a monstrous jab in the belly.

"That was . . . that was worse than swinish, Max!" Melamori shrieked-a flesh and blood Melamori, who was drawing her elegant little foot up for the next attack.

The lady was aiming for the place that should never be targeted under any circumstances. Without even thinking, I grabbed hold of her bare foot, and yanked with all my might. Melamori collapsed onto the floor, curled up into a ball, and rolled into the far corner of the bedroom.

"You did cast a spell after all!" she hissed. "I asked you not to, but you had to bare your fangs and do it anyway! You’re worse than the ancient Magicians! At least they didn’t lie when they performed their malicious tricks!"

"I didn’t lie to you!" I said with the equanimity of absolute shock. "Don’t you see I’m just as surprised as you are? I didn’t really do anything unusual. I just dreamed about you, and I felt glad that I did. I don’t see that there’s any reason for a brawl. You should be glad that miracles -"

"I don’t need any of your filthy miracles!" Melamori snapped.

I was astonished at how much venom could fit into such a small lady.

"No sniveling vampire would dare force me to do such a thing! It’s disgusting! To go to sleep in your own home and wake up in someone else’s bed. In the bed of some creature who doesn’t even deserve to be called human. It’s outrageous! You make me sick, Max! Do you know what I’m going to do now? I’m going to the Quarter of Trysts. At least there I’ll be able to meet a real live man and forget about this nightmare. I’d kill you if I could! You’re lucky that I can only kill humans!"

Slowly, my blood began to boil. When someone dumps so much rubbish on you all at once, no amount of breathing exercises promoted by Lonli-Lokli will do any good.

"Fury! Shrew!" I bellowed. "Coward! Go find some weakling whose head you can turn with your pathetic wiles! You need a man you can kill at the drop of a hat! ‘Get on his trail’ and it’s all up with him! I’m telling you, there was no spell! It was a wonder-a mi-ra-cle!"

"You dare say that to me, after all you’ve done?" Melamori asked, her voice tight with rage.

"I’ve done? I didn’t do anything. I just went to bed, closed my eyes, and dreamed about you. That’s the extent of my ‘magic.’ If you don’t believe me-fine! Suit yourself."

I remembered how happy my dream had made me, and the consciousness of loss gave me a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach. A new wave of rage swept over me. A dense ball of bitter saliva collected in my mouth. Lady Melamori was lucky that I was able to control myself. I spat on the floor, then stared dully at a hole in the carpet that gave off a cloud of reeking steam. When I got a grip on myself, I turned around. Melamori had shrunk into the corner, trembling. I felt sad and ashamed. At that moment life struck me as some monumental joke.

"I’m sorry, Melamori. I said some very foolish things. And you did, too, believe me. Take my amobiler and go home. We’ll talk later."

"We have nothing to talk about," Melamori said, creeping out of her hiding place and inching toward the door. "Even if you’re not a liar, all the worse! That means you can’t help it! Never mind-I’ll find a way. No one will ever force me to do anything! You hear me?"

She slammed the door so violently that one of my small fragile cabinets crashed to the floor. I clutched at my hair and shook my head-everything had gotten completely out of hand! It seemed my romance was smashed to smithereens. Yes, Max, that’s exactly what had happened.


I got out of bed and went downstairs. Dirty, rotten vampires like me have the bad habit of pouring gallons of kamra into themselves after forcing themselves upon sweet ladies. Besides that, we smoke our revolting, stinky cigarettes from another World, and this creates an illusion of emotional equilibrium in us. True, it doesn’t last very long. I was so tense and on edge that my lethargy evaporated like magic. Adrenalin is a powerful thing.

The fact is, I don’t have a drop of patience. If something goes wrong in my life, I’m not able to wait for an auspicious moment to remedy the situation. I’d rather spoil everything once and for all, as long as it’s today, than subject myself to anguished expectation and breathing exercises with an eye toward the future. Of course, it’s stupid, but there are things that are stronger than I am. Waiting and hoping is a path that may lead to sudden madness, but running amuck through town like a complete idiot-that’s sometimes just the ticket! Almost any action I take gives me the illusion that I’m stronger than unmerciful circumstances. I have to do something. This is my form of reasoning: a protective reflex, the uncouth, visceral reaction of a body in trouble. In short, what I truly hate is sitting in one place and suffering.

I went back to the bedroom and started getting dressed. I thought-I was absolutely certain-that I was going to go to work. I’d go help Juffin. What kind of work would he have me do, though? In any case, with a sip of Elixir of Kaxar in the morning I’d feel as good as new.

Only when I had gone outside did I realize that I was dressed not in the Mantle of Death, but in the swamp-colored looxi I had been wearing during my recent gluttonous outing with Sir Kofa. I shrugged. I didn’t have the strength to go back and change. The house awakened painful memories, too fresh for me to want to run up against them again. But going to work in these clothes wasn’t exactly appropriate, either.

I’ll take a walk through town, calm down a bit, do some thinking, and then we’ll see, I decided, turning into the first alleyway I came to.

My legs carried me along wherever they wished. I tried not to interfere. My memory, and the urge to get my bearings in my surroundings, were suspended for the time being. My thoughts also seemed to have taken a short vacation, and this was wonderful. I must admit, I hadn’t counted on this kind of relief.

My headlong flight through the night was interrupted by the rind of some exotic fruit. I slipped, plopping down on the sidewalk in the most inelegant manner. It was good I wasn’t wearing the Mantle of Death-this clumsy footwork could easily have soiled my sinister reputation. The unexpectedness of my fall from grace also jolted my memory, letting loose a stream of curses from my far-off homeland, long slumbering in the recesses of my memory. Two men who were coming out of a tavern stared at me in unfeigned delight. I went quiet, and realized I should pick myself up off the mosaic sidewalk. Praise be the Magicians, at least it was dry.

I got up and looked at the signboard over the establishment from which the two men had just emerged from. The name of the tavern struck me as more than fateful: The Vampire’s Dinner. I smiled bitterly and went inside. What I found was fully in keeping with my expectations, and filled me with a sense of foreboding. In the semidarkness stood the solitary silhouette of the barkeeper. His hair was disheveled and his eyelids glowed phosphorescent. From his ear, naturally, dangled the Earring of Oxalla. I began to feel more cheerful. This is where I should have brought Melamori for our discussion today. I think the proprietor of this establishment would certainly have been on my side.

I sat down at the table farthest from the door. The surface was daubed with red paint. These were supposed to represent spots of blood. I considered for a moment, then ordered something from the Old Cuisine. I was lucky that unhappiness always improved my appetite.

I was served a harmless-looking piece of pie with no outward signs of the vampire esthetic. When I made a tiny incision, the pie literally blew up like a piece of popcorn that explodes over a sizzling hot fire. On my plate there was now an airy cloud of a substance so delicious I had to order another one as soon as the first portion was gone. By the way, this culinary confection was called Breath of Evil.

When I had fallen into a blissful stupor, I ordered some kamra and began to fill my pipe. On top of all the other misfortunes, my meager supply of cigarette butts had dried up. That’s how it always was with me: if it rains, it pours.

5 commentaires:

Anonymous said...

Nice. I just picked this one up at Borders and added it to my to read pile, although to read mountain might be more apt especially given its size. The cover looks even cooler in person.
-Michael P.

Okie said...

Great excerpt. I'm looking forward to this one.

dteve3 said...

I read a just over 100 pages of The Stranger and I gave up. It was really boring and I did not get the comedy at all. I think this is a book you will either love or hate. I loved Peter Brett's The Warded Man, which I had just finished before The Stranger and the two books could not be more different. Just not for me.

whitedow said...

Is it as good as it sound? I like it.

Anonymous said...

I loved it to no end when first reading it in Russian, but I doubt I'd make through even the first book in English. It's like trying to read Pratchett in Russian: you can feel there was something brilliant about the original text, but--well, it remains in the original.
Still, learning Russian for the purpose of reading this book only is slightly too much to ask :>>
It's quite unlikely that English-reading audience will like the language and the jokes, but there still is a chance of loving the characters, the world and the story. I hope so.