Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Mark Charan Newton, Legends of the Red Sun 1: Nights of Villjamur (2009)

There’s a lot to like here; and if there are some flaws too they are either functions of overenthusiasm or overambition, neither of which are deplorable things. Nights of Villjamur is an occasionally hobbledehoy, sometimes rich and atmospheric Fenrir-Devouring-The-Sun Dying Earth fantasy. So, yes, the ice age is coming, sun zooming in, meltdown expected, the wheat is growing thin, engines stop running, and whilst *I* have no fear thousands of refugees are less sanguine, swamping the ancient city of Villjamur in the hope of sanctuary. But the city has problems aplenty already: the emperor's suicide; a serial killer on the loose; war going badly; political infighting and the like. Humans rub shoulders with cultists and various bizarre lifeforms.

Some negatives: it's about 100 pages too long, and its plotlines tangle and multiply to the point where, like a plughole clotted with hairs, the flow gets interrupted. Some of the writing shows evidence of clumsiness, something more noticeable than it otherwise might be because, when he wants to, Newton can write very well indeed. But once you’ve settled into it Nights of Villjamur manages some notable effects, and builds like an accumulating snowdrift in your imagination. It is, in short, a very promising book. Hard to say that without it sounding condescending, but there you go.

One thing struck me as I read, something trivial in itself but which might, I suppose, be symptomatic of a larger problem. It seemed to me that there’s too much shagging in the novel, too many descriptions of lovers obsessively tracing the lines of their lovers’ bodies—to which I object, here, not on grounds of prudishness so much as the mismatch between this coltish, adolescent randiness and the Ancient of Days dying world vibe of the book as a whole. Still, for a book much more likely to be read by coltish, randy adolescents than nonagenarians, that may be a canny choice.

Or perhaps there’s something more defensible about this: a deliberate creative mistmatch of tones, pitching for a sort of interference pattern – decrepitude told via youthful energy; the end of the world parsed as teenage adventure. Something along those lines might be going on in the paraphernalia of this world, partly standard Fantasy archaicism – bows and arrows and so on – partly a series of oddly anachronistic touches (people wear dressing gowns, eat in bistros, smoke cigarettes, attend poetry readings), as if Newton either can’t decide between Heroic and Bourgeois modes, or else has deliberately opted to mash together the two.

Mostly, though, what interested me here was Newton’s style, something I found far less objectionable than did Martin Lewis in his, um, contested Strange Horizons review of the novel. Lewis is right that the style is uneven: Newton has yet to commit fully to the war on cliché (‘he looked devastatingly handsome’, 392) and sometimes his prose clanks and thuds: ‘a scream that seemed to shatter the blanket of rain’ [14]; ‘people showed signs of moving round the city out of context’ [161]. The worst of it is his dialogue: grey, flavourless exchanges that take up a lot of space in the thick volume without doing anything other than filling that space, or moving the plots along—not, as it might be, characterizing or differentiating the speakers, or adding their own atmosphere or poetry.
‘Mind if I join you?’
‘Well, well. It’s the human Inquisition Officer.’
‘So what brings you here? How’s your friend Jeryd?
‘He’s fine.’
[Offered a cigarette.] She took one, saying ‘Thanks. It’s a nasty habit. So has he got back with his wife yet?’
‘Yes, they’re together again.’ [289]
It’s extruded polystyrene, like this, or else it’s plain ugly (‘But it isn’t that which I’m really pissed off about’). The descriptive prose is much better. Here’s what happens to one unlucky lad:
A ball of purple smoke erupted, extending in every direction. Just enough time to see the skin of the boy peel back before he became a myriad of chunks of flesh and bone, which distorted then liquidized as if it were paint. Dartun had ducked in time before he heard the gentle explosion, bringing his fuligin cloak over his face. He felt the remains of the child hitting him first, then slapping against the cobbles. [155-56]
'A myriad of chunks’ is nonsense (Newton means ‘myriad chunks …’); and the it in ‘as if it were’ doesn’t agree with the subject of the sentence; but apart from that this is nicely done. But what’s neat about this passage is not the gross-out stuff, the chunks of flesh or peeling skin (that kind of thing is fucking ten-a-penny in contemporary fantasy). It’s the gentleness of the explosion. More of that and less over-the-toppishness would have made the book much more effective. Newton perhaps thinks that a kind of Bas-Lag Miévillean excess is a needful part of his evocation of Villjamur here; but I don’t think so. In fact the paragraphs of tell-don’t-show ‘look how busy the city is’ feel extraneous, and this is for a deeper reason. Because what Newton is writing here, or what I take him to be writing, is Götterdämmerung.

At its best, though, this novel is doing something really quite interesting, stylistically speaking. Where Fat-Fantasy convention requires clear, kinetic bright-colour satisfactions, he is aiming for something more alienated, snowed-in and bare. Take this description of sunrise, for instance; right out of Waiting for Godot: ‘dawn broke with ferocious speed, shadows chased off the ice in the blink of an eye’ [315]. The city is most memorably evoked when Newton stops trying to build New Viriconium, and channels instead the unreal city of the Waste Land (and Eliot is somewhere behind this novel: ‘this is the way the world ends—not with a whimper but with a fucking big bang’ 157). I liked this aurora: ‘vivid streaks of red and green drifting across the darkness like sheets of rain’ [182]; and this fire: ‘Night, and a small fire had been built on the surface of the ice, transforming the cultists into strange purple silhouettes.’ The whole needs to be more consistently tonally ragnarökkric, like this, I think. But I enjoyed it, and Newton looks like a writer on his way somewhere very interesting.

[Full disclosure: I’ve never met Newton and have no personal investment in his success or otherwise; but I know him a bit (get me, how very 21st-century) via Twitter. More, he has sent various people, including myself, the MS file of his next novel City of Ruin, which I am reading and will review closer to the publication date. You may feel this fact prejudices the disinterestedness of the above review. Although it seems to me a prejudiced review would be more straightforwardly praising, and less nitpicky, than this one.]


Martin said...

A pox on full disclosure! Reviewers who will not tell the truth may be like cholesterol but full disclosure for tenuous copnnection is like parsley.

Adam Roberts said...

How dare you call Twitter tenuous! How dare you impugn Twitter, sir, with accusations of Tenuosity! Twitter has some of the most Osity in all the Russias!

The Witchfinder said...

A fine review, as usual, but I find myself curious as to your thoughts on the characters. Were they not terribly dull and transparent? Aside from Mr. Newton generally favouring telling rather than showing throughout and a general lack of subtlety, I found them to be my biggest issue with the novel.

Mark C Newton said...

Delighted to be Punkadiddled, and thanks for the depth of consideration, and for noting the deliberate mishmash of ideas, which didn't sit well with some.

As for the randiness... you prude! What else would you do with so little time left?

Adam Roberts said...

Witchfinder: the characters didn't strike me as notably flatter than is the case in Fantasy more generally. That a tad faint-praise-damny, I concede.

Adam Roberts said...

"As for the randiness... you prude! What else would you do with so little time left?"

I'd flagellate my privates with ropes made of nettles, of course, like everybody else. I'm not a weirdo!

redrichie said...

Adam: I wouldn't worry too much about the disclosure angle. Some bloke suggested in the comments to the There Is No Genre blog that you are an honest reviewer who thinks nothing of *cough* shitting on your own doorstep (metaphorically speaking).

Adam Roberts said...

Well, I don't want to be a pedant (what am I saying? I love being a pedant!) but they don't actually say I shit on my own doorstep. They say I piss in my own garden. Completely different thing.

Joe Abercrombie said...

Pissing on ones own garden could provide ones flowers with a valuable source of nitrates. Shitting on ones own doorstep seems entirely self-defeating.

Adam Roberts said...

Thanks Joe. It means a lot coming from somebody whose garden is so well vegetated.

Casey Samulski said...

I'm glad Mr. Abercrombie sees that there is a hidden boon lying within my double-edged metaphor.

This is a great review by the way. It got me all slobbery at the thought of picking up this book and it sounds like he really managed to avoid a lot of the samey-ness that irks me about fantasy.

Oh and I think your point about the explosion being gentle is fantastic. I was trying to put my finger on what made that image so compelling to me and I realized that the added "softness" really does it. It makes the typical gross-out fresh instead of droll which is usually how this stuff reads to me. Bravo.

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