Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Mark Charan Newton - Nights of Villjamur

Every detail mattered to her. It could be the difference between dying and getting home to Villjamur. (p. 3)

Striving to be a fusion of Epic Fantasy grandeur and New Weird aesthetic, it could never be said that Nights of Villjamur is not an ambitious novel. Though all of the various strands do not always come together as they should, this is still a powerful novel that has just enough experimentation to feel fresh and bold while still never venturing too far from the beaten path.

The core of Nights of Villjamur is the city of Villjamur and the world around it. Newton uses two techniques to make his settings feel real and vibrant. The first is his prose. Newton’s writing is highly descriptive, packing a multitude of details into tight paragraphs that have to be unraveled carefully lest the intricacies of the image be lost. He guides these descriptions with about faces that give the story a cinematic feel, twisting our view around just as we begin to comprehend what we’re seeing:

Back across the city.

Lanterns were being lit by citizens who perhaps had expected a brighter day. Glows of orange crept through the dreary morning, defining the shapes of elaborate windows, wide octagons, narrow arches. It had been a winter of bistros with steamed-up windows, of tundra flowers trailing down from hanging baskets, of constant plumes of smoke from chimneys, one where concealed gardens were dying, starved of sunlight, and where the statues adorning once-flamboyant balconies were no suffocating under lichen.
(p. 15)

Villjamur has a very different feel from many fantasy cities. Newton’s setting is not traditional fantasy, but rather dying earth, taking place in the distant future rather than the imagined past. The juxtaposition between the seemingly all powerful cultist relics and the swords and bows of the military is an excellent and bizarre one, a dynamic further enforced by Newton’s diction. Newton sprinkles his prose with modern terminology; generally, this gives the setting a unique feel and twists the descriptions into a new light, though the word choice, on occasion, borders on sticking out too much: It seemed only a talented archer stood a chance of deleting one from the skies. (p. 18)

The second way that Newton brings his setting to life is his characters. The players in Newton’s story are a diverse lot, and they start in all manner of places, some closely connected with their peers and others entirely apart. Each of these characters is given their own life, filling the story with motion in the form of plots and subplots, all competing against the strains of day to day life.

Amidst all of that, the main thrust of Nights of Villjamur is hard to detect, but that is, perhaps, the point. There’s no single direction or threat that the characters face. The world is crumbling around them, but each once perceives the threat that they face in a different way, each struggles against a different foe, each tries live their life in their own way.

The disparate characters are the greatest strength of Nights of Villjamur. Though there are not, by epic fantasy standards, any great number of them, the even handedness with which they are all treated render each storyline interesting in the reader’s eye, and each tale reinforces the other, even without always having the various player’s direct presence. Brynd’s work to defend Villjamur is more meaningful because we know that Eir is inside, living a wholly unrelated life, and the multitudes that Inspector Jerryd sees around him are given character by the hint of Randur Estevu’s presence among them, leaving us believing that each of those that we see around us has their own story to tell.

Unfortunately, the various characters are also the novel’s biggest weakness. With so many plot threads, it’s hard for any of them to stand out, and no one threat or crisis ever seems particularly urgent or paramount. One of the book’s first chapters features Brynd and his elite Night Guard being ambushed and suffering bad losses. The events come on so suddenly, though, that the reader can’t really grasp them as they happen in real time. Then, next chapter, we’re with Jeryd, living an entirely separate existence with no thought to spare for the soldiers. When Brynd comes back we learn that the loss was almost unprecedented, tragedy and debacle in one, but by then it’s too late, and the reader’s hard pressed to give the events the importance they deserve in light of the fact that no one else in the city seems to care.

Beyond that, some of the various sub plots simply function less well than others. The mystery, in particular, falls far short of the standards established by the rest of the book. The killer is obvious from the book’s opening, but fine, maybe it’s more about how Jerryd pieces the puzzle together than it is about the exact identity of the killer. Halfway through the book, Jerryd figures out the killer: Suddenly he remembered how the suspect…[did something incriminating]. (p. 236) He does nothing for a hundred or so pages. Then he figures out the killer again: “Damn,” Jeryd repeated, and sat back in his chair. He laughed, his tail thrashing form side to side. “How stupid of me. All the time I’ve been telling myself it wasn’t [name] (p. 304) and decides to go do something about it. Er, excuse me? What just happened – or, better yet didn’t happen – in those intervening pages?

Newton doesn’t aim low when he lists influences, and a writer that cites authors like Vance and Mieville as influences has a lot to live up to. When it comes to reaching those great heights, Newton doesn’t hold back. The results are, however, mixed. Much has been made of the supposed combination of New Weird and Epic Fantasy that forms this book. Now, it’s true that the combination is in play, but the Weird elements are primarily used as flavoring, here. The city of Villjamur is multifaceted, but the various plots that unfold within it are, generally, of a more save the world from the evil [name]! than, say, Iron Council.

Which is, mind you, not a negative. The majority of the bizarre elements are worked in so closely to the characters that they come off as totally natural, such as the Rumels that form up much of the city’s population, or the enhanced prowess of the Night Guard. Contrasting against those are the remnants of the prior age (our own?), which stick out so strongly against the rest of Newton’s world that they create depressions around them in which everything else seems dull and blunt compared to their powers, a slideshow suddenly looking drab when compared with a motion picture. The reader’s reaction to the cultist’s relics is the same as many of the characters – one of awe and apprehension – and the chapters from a cultist viewpoint are some of the most interesting in the book.

Of course, Mieville is not renowned solely for his settings. Newton’s treatment of theme is, again, mixed. He brings up interesting issues, but we rarely see them examined in anything but the most perfunctory of manners. Much of the book is concerned with the vast hordes of refugees crowding Villjamur’s gates, pleading to get in, but they also happen to be an indistinct mass, a blur of undiscribed faces and unknown mannerisms. Lacking a character who lives among them, or even one who spends more time than just their respective climax worrying about them, the refugees are hard to really feel for, rendering any point that has their survival as its delivery mechanism half cocked at best.

When dealing with smaller matters, however, Newton is far more successful. I’ve already talked about the characters, but what makes them so fascinating is their personal, not professional, lives. The intersection between work and pleasure, life and duty, is an interesting area, and every time Newton’s characters are interrupted on a journey the book becomes that much more colorful and interesting:

He turned, sniffed the chill air, began to walk away –
- A snowball slapped his head.
(p. 154)

It’s odd, in a way, for the mundane to be the primary fulfillment of the book’s high aims, but it’s in the little details of his characters’ lives that Newton sets himself apart from authors that can handily string up a paper king and a cardboard vizier and have the two battle it out with improbably large weapons.

Nights of Villjamur’s strengths and weaknesses are so intertwined that it’s hard to imagine a version of it without either of them. Though this is a flawed novel, it’s still both an interesting experiment and a good read, and I’m looking forward to seeing how Newton develops what he’s established in City of Ruin.


  1. The injections of modern terminology were a major turn-off for me, and one of the reasons why I put the book down (the other reason being that it wasn't drawing me in).

    The first time Newton used the phrase "Right Wing" to refer to a political faction, it completely pulled me out of the story.

  2. I don't remember Right Wing specifically bothering me. The main one that annoyed me was the 'delete' one that I quoted, not so much because it felt modern but because, even now, I don't think anyone would say that. It just feels awkward.