Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Mark Charan Newton, City of Ruin (2010)

Here’s the amazon 'product description':
:Villiren: a city of sin that is being torn apart from the inside. Hybrid creatures shamble through shadows and barely human gangs fight turf wars for control of the streets.

Amidst this chaos, Commander Brynd Lathraea, commander of the Night Guard, must plan the defence of Viliren against a race that has broken through from some other realm and already slaughtered hundreds of thousands of the Empire’s people.

When a Night Guard soldier goes missing, Brynd requests help from the recently arrived Inqusitor Jeryd. He discovers this is not the only disappearance the streets of Villiren. It seems that a serial killer of the most horrific kind is on the loose, taking hundreds of people from their own homes. A killer that cannot possibly be human.

The entire population of Villiren must unite to face an impossible surge of violent and unnatural enemies or the city will fall. But how can anyone save a city that is already a ruin?
So we’re on the fringes of Newton’s imaginary world: not in the big city that took centre stage in the first book in his Red Sun sequence, Nights in VilljSatin, but the titular ruinous city, a gang-troubled frontier town called Viliren, a place whose football team is almost certainly not called ‘Aston Viliren’.

Now, this novel is better in many ways than the enjoyable though ragbaggy Nights: Newton is more in control of his voice here, more confident in what he’s doing. There’s some efficiently structured storytelling (maybe it takes a little too long getting-going; but once the main plots are in place it moves nicely along), with lots of gnarly, peculiar lifeforms and environments and some thumping set-pieces. I liked the Swiftian floating island especially. Still, the text is not wholly free of Teh Slapdash. I’d still describe Newton as a writer on his way somewhere interesting rather than someone who’s got there yet. Although, by the same token, he has a raw youthful energy that many more mature writers just can’t achieve, and he mixes his soursweet recipe of Fantasy, horror and noir nicely -- uniquely, indeed. If you’re enjoying a bit of oral sex, the last thing you want is a vast, malign spider-creature crashing through your window and pouncing upon you. City of Ruin is that last thing you want.

It’s a balancing act, of course: giving the Fantasy Fan the fighting and questing and magic she wants, without simply extruding indistinguishable Fantasy Plastic. So, Newton goes to some length to address the inherent racism and heteronormativity of his chosen mode—the main character, Night Guard Commander Brynd, has to closet his homosexuality, for instance; and the various ‘races’ and species of the city don’t just rub along in a bland manner (a graffito: 'Rumel Fuck Off – Human’s Only'). That’s a welcome thing in Fantasy, of course, although part of me might wish the engagement with these issues were slightly less clunking than, for instance, this conversation between characters from different species discussing a new threat:
they’re supposedly like crustaceans, and stand taller than any normal man. From what we’ve witnessed, they’re vicious fighters, totally ruthless, and they’re massing on the southern shores of the gulf waiting to launch a raid over here. Although I hesitate to ever label an entire race as evil—I mean, we’re just judging them from one perspective ... They ought not to be defined simply by their appearance – although there are many in our world who would.’

‘Talk to me about racism,’ muttered Jeryd, contemplating this inherent understanding between an albino and a rumel.
Not very nuanced, this; or—indeed—entirely believable, on the level of the built world (I don’t mean that a human and a rumel would get on; but that they would talk about it in these terms). Newton is better on the sex, I’d say; and his gay protagonist is handled with more sophistication, although here also there are moments of over-obviousness in the way the prejudice is demonstrated (‘I’m a real man,’ Malum grunted finally, ‘someone the likes of you just wouldn’t understand.’). But the book's heart is certainly in the right place, and it feels mean spirited of me to criticise this aspect of it. I do so because I have a mean spirit.

The prose is better controlled than the first novel, although the little Pedant who lives inside my head pulling the levers occasionally screeched with mild pain:
At some point near the Althing district Jeryd realized that he was caught up with the flotsam of new recruits for the citizen militia, men and women and children, with heads lowered against the driving snow, some with expressions of determination, others with a sad disconnection. The flow was moving towards the older buildings surrounding the Citadel, gaining in numbers and intensity. The streets lost consistency here, curving and twisting, a few blocked by the rubble, which was being carted off by soldiers to form defensive barriers. Row upon row of mounted Dragoons waited for engagement, shifting in their saddles, totally emotionless, consummate professionals.
But ‘flotsam’ means ‘floating matter’ ('flot', you see), and these soldiers are clearly not floating, not even in a metaphorical sense; ‘intensity’ isn’t right (does Newton mean ‘density’?); ‘the streets lost consistency’ doesn’t parse properly, and ‘consummate professional’ is a cliché. Or, from near the beginning of the novel:
Accumulating force between the cliffs bordering the harbour, icy winds assaulted the citadel violently. Jeryd had to continuously keep a tight grip on his new hat. Nanzi led him up the final stairway to the vast citadel directly at the front of the city, a decrepit and fortress-residence facing the sea. He couldn’t believe how massive it was, getting on for twenty storeys high. Many different shades of rock had been used in its construction – from the speckled texture of granite, the smoothness of sandstone. Despite its vast, towering façades, crowded with spiked crenulations, the light mist of drizzle and gentle fog seemed to lend it an ethereal, almost otherworldly quality. Access was gained by several wide, shallow-stepped staircases, and the thin rectangles of lantern-illuminated windows were ranged regularly along each side.
This is getting there: its evocative enough, but it’s not quite hitting the sweet spot. Some of this has to do with trimming redundant words (‘violently’ is already implicit in ‘assaulted’; ‘continuously’ is not needed and splits the infinitive awkwardly; ‘getting on for’ is needlessly vague—Newton has made this building up; if he doesn’t know how tall his building is, who does? And ‘from’ in the fifth sentence needs to be cut). Some of it, though, is the arrangement of elements as they’re described. The citadel is introduced in the first sentence, so that introducing it again in the third (‘the vast citadel directly at the front of the city, a decrepit and fortress-residence facing the sea’) is backslippy and wrongfooting. The penultimate sentence there acts as a small, but effective climax to description. To go from that to a mundane account of stairwells and windows is awkward—that final sentence needs to go earlier in the passage, or (do the stairwells and windows really matter?) to be cut altogether.

I don't know though. The temptation, as a writer, may be to say to oneself: ‘hey I write a fluid, streamy-consciousnessy prose; I don’t need to bother with crossing all the ts & dotting all the lower-case js!’ This temptation must be resisted. Sloppy writing is never good, in whatever context. Precision is not fussy or tight-arsed; it is what we do. And it is more needful in Fantasy than in other modes of writing, because a fantasy writer cannot rely on her readers simply supplying the necessary specifics from the actual world. On his blog, I seem to recall, Newton has talked about being influenced by Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet;—a dangerous influence on a developing writer, though intoxicating enough—but even at its most baroque and outré Durrell’s impressionistic prose is never sloppy or imprecise. There are writers who would say ‘dude, I don’t need to get it all exactly right; ballpark is fine, my readers don’t really care.’ I don’t think Newton is one of those writers.


Anthrophile said...

You wouldn't allow that use of "flotsam" as a metaphor? (Yep, that's all I got. *g*)

Adam Roberts said...

OK: I give you that.