City of Ruin by Mark Charan Newton
City of Ruin by Mark Charan Newton follows on from Nights of Villjamur as the second in the Legends of the Red Sun trilogy. I suppose I should start off with the good news. Most of the time, the prose is more readable than in the first book. This is a welcome relief. What was heavy going and distracting, has now become slightly less idiosyncratic and more accessible. There were still moments when I paused at word choices and sentence constructions. I suppose that’s inevitable when there’s a big cultural gap between a young author and an old reader like me. For example, we have someone committed to establishing a fantasy milieu and making vocabulary choices to create a dark and foreboding city as a central character in the plot. So would there really be someone assiduously picking his teeth while running through the night streets? Personally, I would have thought most frightened men focus on avoiding death without worrying about losing finer points of etiquette for dental hygiene. Does a guard “tromp”, do men “neck” their drinks? It’s difficult to avoid flinching when you see slangy usages suddenly leaping out from the page. Similarly, we still have all the same choppiness of a highly episodic narrative structure with multiple points of view but, as a story-telling exercise, this is a major improvement on the first volume. However, the problems with the content remain.
Let’s quickly summarise where we start. We’re in Villiren with Brynd Lathrea doing his very best to undermine the credibility of his own command before he has a chance to draw his sword in anger. Investigator Rumex Jeryd and his wife Marysa are just starting to make a home for themselves in a city where the political situation is only superficially described and the gangs seem to have free rein. The main administrator is the shadowy Portreeve Lutto whom we’re never really allowed to see too much of. He’s presented as the usual corrupt city leader whose main purpose seems to be the destruction of the trade unions so that local businessmen can make more profit by paying their workers less. It’s actually rather depressing for something so simplistic to be introduced and not properly developed. Worse, the distant Emperor has sent Voland with a mission to keep the city well-fed. Instead of using his talents to create large hybrid meat animals, he proceeds to surreptitiously slaughter several thousand inhabitants and dispose of their bodies into the food chain. When it comes to distribution, he finds able support from Malum who leads a gang of vampire-like creatures. Add in various assorted cultists and soldiers from the Night Guard and that captures the city. On their way, but not quite arriving in time to do much to defend the city, is Randur leading the imperial sisters, Eir and Rika, across the broken landscape between the cities.
With the help of his new assistant, Nanzi, Jeryd starts off to investigate the disappearances. Frankly, he shows himself not very bright and, although he does eventually crack the case, the point of this narrative thread is not to solve the crime. In fact two quite different purposes are in evidence. First, there’s a supposedly dark theme running through the book of people with magical abilities being able to manipulate human flesh. So this is an excuse to pick and mix all the horror clichéd human and animal blends. Secondly, when the alien invaders push on from their interdimensional bridgehead, there will be a need for a skillful doctor to patch up the fallen defenders and lots of exciting creatures to set loose on these poor unsuspecting aliens.
Perhaps I’m just getting old and bad tempered, but I found the handling of the gay theme embarrassingly bad. Surely we’ve reached the point in a newish century when we can discuss virulent homophobia in at least neutral, if not positively condemnatory, terms. Frankly, I’m not at all certain that Mark Charan Newton disapproves the behaviour of some of the judgmental characters who would rather see the city fall than allow it to be saved by a gay man. And then we come to the completely clunky thread. Our trio escaping from the first novel’s turn of events proves only to be a vehicle for literally introducing our dea ex machina. Well, if I had been complaining there was no explanation of what was happening, I need complain no more. We have a major infodump dropped into our laps. It all makes perfect sense now — sorry, my comedy reflex is kicking in — leaving me even more confused than before I started.
I’m not a purist and don’t mind mixing science fiction with fantasy, but there comes a point when the author has to get serious and start applying consistent rules to what everyone can and cannot do. We start off with seemingly random powers being displayed by cultists and other magic wielders. Then we have the folk who play with old technology and apparently build their own modern versions of these relics. Now we have aliens who can open doors between dimensions and communicate with each other telepathically so long as the doors are open. Our new heroine controls a vast airship, presumably exploiting antigravity, but still gets into the thick of things with her swords. It seems there are multiple worlds to explore and races to put names to. It’s easy to understand why this has grown into a three book series and counting but, frankly, I don’t think I can be bothered to read any more. I really don’t care enough what happens to any of this motley crew. It’s all being made up on the hoof. If our city is losing, someone comes up with a quick fix to get a respite. The enemy regroups. Well, here’s something else we just thought of. There’s no foundation laid for any of the major things we see. It’s just one rabbit pulled out of the hat after another. This is not to deny the author is inventive and reasonably creative. But unless creativity is underpinned by a basic discipline, it all goes to waste.
So that’s it for me. I will not be reading on beyond City of Ruin. But if you want to see how the story of multiple invasions into a prime dimension plays out, the next book is called The Book of Transformations.
Here’s my review of Nights of Villjamur.