Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Nights of Villjamur

I first heard about Nights of Villjamur when it was published in 2009 and wanted to give it a go then, but for reasons that I’ll never understand I couldn’t get a copy of it down here until late in 2010 and with my ever growing TBR pile it’s taken me until now to actually read it.

Damn! I enjoyed this book. It’s hands down my favourite thing to read in 2011 so far.

To me, there was something almost hypnotic about the book, I became immersed in it very early and remained so until I turned the last page to find that there were no more.

Most of the criticism that I’ve seen has been positive, with the exception of one scathing review over at Strange Horizons.

A lot of the comparisons that have been made have tried to pigeon hole the book as either part of the New Weird movement or as part of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth milieu, as I haven’t read anything classified as New Weird (think China Mieville) or The Dying Earth (both Mieville and Vance are on my to read list) I can’t comment on the validity of those comparisons. As I read two names kept cropping up in my mind. One was Scott Lynch (The Lies of Locke Lamora) and the other was Joe Abercrombie (The First Law trilogy). Not really surprising as Lynch’s best known work came out in 2006 (I read it in 2008) and Abercrombie hit the scene in the same year, and I also read the opening book of The First Law (The Blade Itself) in 2008. I kept comparing Newton’s city of Villjamur with Lynch’s Camorr. There are similarities, although Camorr is far more detailed and complex, to me it was this extra character in The Lies of Locke Lamora, whereas Villjamur, while alien and atmospheric, is merely a setting. Newton and Abercrombie share a rather bleak outlook, but I found Newton’s characters more rounded than Abercrombie’s. Joe’s characters spend a lot of their time fighting and fucking or talking about fighting and fucking. Mark’s do both, but far less often and with more style for the most part. It’s rather like Joe’s people flunked out of high school and Mark’s went on to complete university. The other huge variance is the type of character they write. Beyond his Neanderthal zombies I’ve never see Abercrombie introduce any truly magical being. In Newton’s opening to his Legends of the Red Sun series people rub shoulders with Garudas (flying soldiers based on a creature from Hindu and Buddhist mythology, the Garudas in Nights of Villjamur seem to owe more to the Buddhist version than the Hindu one), there are Banshees who call out at the moment of a person’s death, a prostitute can create art that comes to life and then we have the Rumels, bipedal creatures that have tails and seem to be rather lizard-like, they also live 3 – 4 times as long as a human and I haven’t even mentioned the tusked Dawnir, creatures that seem ageless and whom for time has no real meaning. We have zombies called Draugr (he got that one from Norse mythology) and something that sounds like a cross between a lobster and a person that they don’t even have a name for yet. I was completely caught up in the breadth and brilliance of Mark Charan Newton’s creation.

There are 3 separate stories running in Nights of Villjamur, all largely centred around the coming ice age that is engulfing the archipelago and forcing people to flee to the city. Events are set in motion when the mentally unstable Emperor Johynn kills himself and puts his totally unprepared daughter Jamur Rika on the throne. The 3 stories running through the narrative concern 3 characters and are different in style, two of them do converge towards the end of the book, though.

Brynd Lythraea is a hard bitten career soldier, he’s also an albino and a homosexual (I’m not really sure why the decision was made to make him gay as it didn’t impact in any way, shape or form on the rest of his story), he takes his commandoes to a far flung island and finds himself in an unwinnable fight against a terrifying enemy. Brynd does other things in the course of the book, he’s the one who returns the new Empress; Rika, to Villjamur, but this struggle formed the bulk of his story. It had the feel of a typical knights and swords quest combined with a WW II action story.

The world weary rumel Jeryd works as an investigator for the Inquisition (a job that their extended lifespan makes them ideal for) and he’s investigating the mysterious deaths of highly placed civil servants. He doesn’t know that he’s being betrayed from within and that it could have consequences not only for himself and his wife Marysa, but the Empire itself. At times I had to check and ensure that the book in my hands wasn’t written by Martin Cruz Smith.

My personal favourite narrative was that involving the dashing swashbuckler Randur Estevu, he came to Villjamur looking for a way to extend his dying mother’s life and wound up winning the heart of a Princess. Randur is a dab hand with a sword and an accomplished dancer, he’s also a charmer, but he gets a lot more than he bargains for when he agrees to teach Eir (Empress Rika’s younger sister) how to dance and fight at the same time. This particular storyline became a bit Boys Own towards the end, but it was fun to read.

If you like Joe Abercrombie, then give Mark Charan Newton and his Legends of the Red Sun a try. I’m going to look for a copy of City of Ruin.

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