This review is based upon the assumption that you’ve read Nights of Villjamur, the first book in this series. If you haven’t, check out my review and then go and read it. I think you’re missing out on some of the most groundbreaking urban fantasy currently gracing the bookshelves.
So, part deux. Like Newton’s previous volume, this is a delightfully full and complex story–actually, make that stories–that reveals more than ever about the world he has created while leaving plenty for the next book. There’s the return of some personal favourites and a host of new characters to get your teeth into, as well as a whole new city to explore. Lastly, there is also some of the most surprising twists and turns that I’ve ever come across in anything I’ve ever read. Ever. I’m still undecided as to whether or not it’s a good thing.
Let’s open all that up, shall we?
This book has a much darker tone than the previous volume. It’s also clear from his writing that Newton, having got past his first book jitters, feels liberated. I really thought his first book was groundbreaking, but it seems he was waiting to find his mark…no pun intended, before really going for it. For me it’s the darker elements of the stories, told with a certain visceral relish, that speaks most clearly of his newfound freedom of expression.
The central story is that of the fate of Villiren, a city on the soon-to-be frontline of a war with the strange, aggressive, and previously unknown creatures introduced in book one. Within that setting (and again Newton has made the city a character by itself), there are a wealth of tales being spun. Brynd, commander of the Night Guard, is desperately trying to prepare Villiren for a war of unprecedented scale in the face of the city’s apparent apathy, while Investigator Rumex Jeryd is scouring the streets to solve the spate of disappearances that no one else seems to care about. And, in the all too busy underworld, two street gangs continue to look to their own interests, apparently in utter indifference to the fate of their city.
The tension builds steadily in the first half, and I found the emotional and highly charged atmosphere of a city on the brink of war hard to tolerate. In fact, there were times where I was simply too tired or tense to carry on reading and had to put the book down and pick up something lighter like War & Peace. Don’t mistake that for a criticism; it is very high praise indeed. Furthermore, the relationships described in the book call upon powerful emotions that only add to the tension.
As an existential psychotherapist in my other life, I find an unmistakable vein of significant emotional intelligence running all through Newton’s writing that really appeals to me. Malum, the leader of a powerful gang with some real bite, and his potentially violent and difficult relationship with Beami, an up and coming Cultist with secrets of her own. Commander Brynd Lathraea, his socially unacceptable sexual proclivity and the paradox with his public role as a leader of the most respected soldiers in the Empire. These examples and more besides demonstrates a rare measure of insight into relationships, which, when you think about it, really cuts to the heart of what makes a good novel.
Another thread continued from Nights of Villjamur is that of Randur Estevu and the usurped Empress and her sister. It is here that the greatest revelations of Newton’s world are brought to light. In their story he strains the boundaries of fantasy and seems to dance a few steps in the realm of science fiction. Newton also reveals a large chunk of the cosmology of his world with a suddenness that really caught me by surprise with both its implications and its scope. Newton is clearly very aware of this, as a powerful and otherworldly new character’s ship is called the Exmachina, a pun that gave me endless amusement, while Randur’s feelings of being overwhelmed by the revelations very neatly matched my own. My more puritanical propensities regarding the boundaries between SF and fantasy took a bit of a beating in this book, but despite some lingering ambivalence I think Newton has pulled off a real coup. It seems that the twain can meet without bringing the walls down.
The second half of the book focuses upon the battle for Villiren, and here we are plunged into a most brutal and bloody conflict that kept me reading for hours until the last page was turned. For me the real stars of the battle were a band of three, Lone Gunmen style, cultists and the magical help they bring to bear in defence of the city. They were just so engaging and disarming in their enthusiasm that I couldn’t help but be drawn in by them.
The battle scenes are fast flowing and really action packed, with some good old fashioned blood and guts–though also with some very original twists, as appears to be Newton’s way. I enjoyed the sense of the greater ebb and flow of the battle combined with the nitty gritty details of the fights. However, be warned, this is not a war without personal cost. Some favourites of mine bit the dust, and it wasn’t an easy thing. I know it’s part of life and must therefore be part of fiction, and the suddenness of some of the deaths were, I think, really meant to convey the brutality of war and did so with aplomb; but I couldn’t help but feel that it was a little excessive. In truth, it really wasn’t when you consider the scale of the battle, but such was my attachment to the characters that their demise felt over the top in abruptness.
My feeling is that this book has fulfilled the promise of Nights of Villjamur while simultaneously raising the stakes for the next in the series. I found it very readable, thoroughly entertaining and equally challenging. All in all, a must read!
One small postscript for my fellow arachnophobes, a warning if you will: Don’t read this when going to bed, assuming, of course, that you want to sleep….