Home > Books > Nights of Villjamur by Mark Charan Newton

Nights of Villjamur by Mark Charan Newton

As with several other books of late, I find myself left somewhat introspective. When I began reading Nights of Villjamur by Mark Charan Newton, I found it slow-going. Not so much because of the content, you understand. It was the prose style. This leads me to a kind of working hypothesis which I’ll be testing out over the years remaining to me. I believe I find a prose style easy to read when it most closely approximates how I write. But when the voice of the author is based on different rhythms, vocabulary and collocation choices, and reflects a different sense of salience, I tend to pause more often to think about the language. For example, “Despite the eddies of locals that crowded her with a dirty intensity, she felt utterly lonely.” I’m not sure it would ever have occurred to me that crowds of dirty people might rub up against female strangers with intensity — except on trains and buses when they think they can get away with it — and it’s not that I don’t understand that being in a crowd can heighten a sense of loneliness — despite everyone pressing against her with intensity — but that the way it’s expressed reflects a different way of viewing the world and expressing what’s seen. Indeed, the text is littered with similar descriptive oddities and unusual usages, and it took me some time to adjust. In the end, I turned an increasingly blind eye and so accommodated this “difference”. I slowly speeded up (at last I’ve worked an oxymoron into one of these reviews) but this book did take me longer than usual to read. In this, I’m giving the author the benefit of the doubt. To sell into the UK and US markets, professional editors should have been at work, challenging the author to justify some, if not all, this linguistic weirdness. Being old and pernickety, this does not dispel residual annoyances like the more modern use of “decimate” to mean completely obliterate rather than its traditional meaning of reduce by 10%. That said, in structural terms, the rolling point of view is quite pleasing.

 

Nights of Villjamur is science fiction meets fantasy on a world about to go through one of its prolonged periods of cooling — a kind of mini-Ice Age. In world-building terms, it’s the opposite of Cycle of Fire by Hal Clement in which a dwarf is a binary to a giant star and this produces 40-year periods alternating hot and cold. So this planet has multiple intelligent life forms and is, in Vancean terms, a Dying Earth where the technology surviving from previous ages has been reduced to relics barely understood. This gives us two completely different sets of games to play. In science fiction terms, we’re trying to understand exactly what the remnants of this technology will tell us about the races who previously inhabited the planet and whether it’s capable of mitigating the effects of the coming big freeze. To frustrate any overview emerging, different cults have specialised in the various types of technology and they refuse to share their knowledge and understanding of what their old kit can do. Some of the cults are less than ethical, representing the view that the ends justify the means. This makes any co-operation between the major cults problematic. While the fantasy element gives us a chance to watch the interspecies politics as forced migration to escape the cold brings ever larger crowds of refugees to the capital city from the North. There’s also quite a dark element that works the fringes of necromancy as some residual technology appears to permit an extension of life expectancy or a limited form of reanimation.

Mark Charan Newton keeping his head down

 

The death of the local Emperor exposes his two inexperienced daughters, Rika and Eir, to manipulation by Chancellor Urtica. He’s one of these mad-eyed Neocons who wants war with the neighbouring Empire to prevent it becoming too big a rival and justify repression at home, including the removal of the growing number of refugees currently cluttering up the landscape outside the capital. He’s against the idea of diplomacy and all for unilateral military action, using the trappings of religion to promote his power base. Inadvertently, Randur Estevu represents a counterbalance for the “noble” sisters. He may be a Casanova and a thief, but he offers a worldiness Eir in particular lacks. We have Brynd struggling to keep control of the Army while being undermined and diverted by the Chancellor, while Rumex Jeryd investigates the deaths of two Councillors, both loyal supporters of the Chancellor. From this you will understand that the primary focus of the novel is on the question of succession given the predatory Chancellor, whether war with the neighbouring Empire can be avoided, and the real nature of the danger in the North.

 

We then arrive at the end which is not, as in many other books, a big set-piece where everything is conveniently gift-wrapped for our delight. Rather the different narrative threads stop. Midway through we find out who killed the counsellors but that’s not really the point, Brynd retreats from the far North, Chancellor Urtica makes good progress in seizing power, Randur Estevu’s dance and sword lessons pay dividends, and the most amoral of the cult leaders, Dartun Sur, wanders off but, unlike the Cheshire Cat, all he leaves behind is a contemptuous smirk.

 

There’s much to like in Nights of Villjamur, this first in a trilogy called Legends of the Red Sun. It’s packed full of interesting ideas and, at various points there’s a slightly sly sense of humour in evidence (as in the interview with Chancellor Urtica). But there are some poor narrative choices. I have no concept of how this Empire functions. In the best fantasies, there’s a positive effort to explain how the local equivalent of a civil service supports the government. This Empire just seems to persist with the Chancellor able to get things done despite there being no obvious line of command in the military forces, no military bases or camps for the troops and their training, no interspecies liaison, poor co-ordination between the policing function and higher authority, and so on. There’s also no effort to show us the life of the city. We only catch glimpses of parts. And the refugees seem marginalised, never really being described nor an explanation being given of how they survive without food and shelter being provided by the city. So if you accept the linguistic oddities and focus on the narrative, this is a not inauspicious start to a trilogy. I see the other two books have already been published in the UK, so I’ve ordered them to see what happens next. They will then no doubt rise to the hand on the shelves next to my machine but, I suspect, not as rapidly as other books waiting to be read.

 

For a review of the sequel, see City of Ruin.

 

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