Home > Books > City of Ruin by Mark Charan Newton

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.

Mark Charan Newton with furniture from another dimension edging into view over his left shoulder

 

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.

 

  1. May 27, 2012 at 5:53 am

    I don’t often respond to reviews but I do take umbrage to this point:

    “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”

    Which is quite a serious accusation. Of course I disapprove. I merely set characters up in a way that creates an awkward confrontation in the reader’s mind. The whole point is that Brynd rises above it all and that readers aren’t sure how to think about Malum.

    • May 27, 2012 at 12:58 pm

      Well it seems to me that your writing style is “heart on sleeve”, i.e. when you set up a situation, the reader immediately knows and understands what you think about it. Your vocabulary choices signal your opinions. So, for example, we have the ghastly prejudices of Priest Pias who’s described as corrupt, i.e. he extorts money from his congregation solely to embellish his church with excessive finery. This is a postmodernist charge made against most religions which raise money from their flocks and spend it on building impressive places of worship. The creation of such mis en scènes is a deliberate ploy to induce a sense of wonder, to frame the words and behaviour of worship in a place that predisposes the gullible into believing the whole activity divine. This judgement flows from your decision to use the word “extort”. You could have been neutral and described the process as collecting a contribution to building costs and maintenance from a willing congregation, or you could have selected a word with less pejorative connotations like tithing. But you choose to describe the process as criminal (extortion is a crime so this Priest probably acts like Chaucer’s Pardoner and blackmails the congregation into paying out of fear they will otherwise be damned in Hell). Incidentally, Priest Pias is also a racist and a homophobe but, of course, that’s just a coincidence. Under normal circumstances, Priests are kindly loving people. Anyway, you have the Commander on the eve of battle walk into a gay brothel — which may be a profoundly stupid thing to do. Are these places known to the public, i.e. is gay prostitution generally tolerated with no laws promulgated by the Empire forbidding such behaviour as unnatural? Or does the Commander need access to an underground network of gays to tell him where he can find friendship in reasonably secure circumstances? You should understand my problem here. If he knows homosexuality is illegal and news of his predisposition will undermine his command, why would he risk going? But if gay prostitution is routinely available and only disapproved by a few, albeit influential, individuals, he can openly walk into such a place with fewer worries about who sees him. Because you completely fail to set a context for this situation and provide little or no support for him as a character, the predominant tone of the book is hostile to homosexuals. So, my uncertainty as to your opinions on homosexuality remains.

  2. May 27, 2012 at 3:03 pm

    Heart on sleeve – an illusion, perhaps, but there’s not a huge amount of opinion I share with any of my characters. If I create that illusion, then wonderful.

    Your Priest argument seems a bit of a straw man so I’ll move on from that.

    I’d question your flagging up the fact that Brynd slept with a prostitute – you mean that gay men can’t do that but straight men could do that, no problem? This a city that has no rules – that is made abundantly clear – and Brynd knows it. Brynd is under overwhelming stress and calculates that he can get away with it. And he should be permitted to do so. If him *being fucked* by another guy and this is presented as a good thing, a relief, as something that is okay – if you’ve read that as being representative of homophobic views, then I’m not quite sure how you arrived there.

    The entire point of constructing this plot was so that Brynd is presented as an utter hero against *phenomenal* personal odds and military goals; that is why there is no support for him. It’s him alone. The fact that nearly everyone in the book (note, largely speaking not his comrades) is anti-homosexual is to make readers questions their *own* attitudes towards homosexuality – I cannot stress this enough: it was designed specifically to do so.

    I wanted to create huge empathy for Brynd in readers who might not normally do so. Who might be homophobic themselves. It’s not designed to appeal to the liberals, though I’m clearly one at heart, but the many readers who adore macho characters. Hence using Malum as his rival – Malum who readers might think is ‘cool’ or representative of their ideals, turns out to be a raging homophobe. The question I then ask readers: *now* what do you think of him?

    (But what really frustrates me is how people always go on about Malum’s reaction to Brynd – but not about how he treats his wife. People always gloss over his misogyny. Is that not equally appalling? Right from the off, Malum is portrayed as not a pleasant person.)

    I hope you can be open to my explanation here, and you’re entitled to your own reading, but I do take offence that you’re labouring the point to make an personal accusation using questionable logic.

    • May 27, 2012 at 4:53 pm

      It’s an interesting response. Personally, I think this book panders to the right-wing mentality, offering positive models for beliefs that include homophobia, mysogyny, racism, anti-immigration, anti-unionisation and pro-capitalism in the more corrupt, profit-at-any-cost sense of the word. I note your admission, “It’s not designed to appeal to the liberals. . .” We can agree on that. Let’s restrict this exchange of view to the homophobia and exclude the other symptoms of bigotry. If you think my interpretation of this book as pro-homophobia is perverse and based on questionable logic, what specific texts can you point to that explicitly, or by necessary implication, show your intention to have the average reader disapprove the homophobic behaviour? You are the author. You control how the message is to be delivered. How did you intend to signal your personal disapproval of this behaviour? If all you did was present the situation and hope the average reader would disapprove, this mere spes allows the reader to interpret the text in the light of his or her prejudices. Unless you challenge intolerance, your silence means it’s within the scope of your intention that people should believe you approve of homophobic behaviour. Indeed, in this book, I find your silences particularly eloquent. As far as I can see, having set the hare of homophobia running without any particular justification, you simply let those who enjoy blood sports have their day without adverse comment or condemnation.

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