Faren Miller reviews Mark Charan Newton

Mark Charan Newton’s Nights of Villjamur seems to have slipped under my radar last year, but this excellent novel finally reached me in advance of sequel City of Ruin, which I plan to review next month. This time, I’ll join the enthusiastic chorus for a work that deserves all the favorable notice it can get. It may not be a first novel as the promos say (that was The Deep, from 2008), but it’s set in the same world and begins a trilogy whose hybrid SFnal/fantastic planet pays tribute to Jack Vance’s tales of the Dying Earth as well as even more seminal genre fiction, interwoven with myths that could date back millennia.

On a distant world where the two moons have different sizes, the sun is long past its prime, and the urban architecture sports sophisticated relics from an age where other creatures ruled, humans may hold the obvious power now. Still, some exotic beasties linger in plain sight, like the man/bird hybrid garuda which currently kills felons, and banshees whose cry announces each sentient being’s death (figures inspired by Asian and Irish lore, respectively). As the capital city of a once-voracious empire, Villjamur seems threatened on all sides: from probable inner treachery, preliminary raids by outside forces, as well as the early stages of a planet-wide ice age known as The Freeze.

In the prologue, elite military group The Night Guard is ambushed while on an expedition to a bleak northern island; few will return to try to figure out what hit them. Due to the worsening weather, refugees from the north are flocking into refugee camps that surround the city while its ruling Council debates what to do with them. Under the guise of potential sanctuary, devious and ruthless private schemes are being hatched. And, on the even more intimate level of scenes in Chapter One, a politician’s lusty affair with a local woman (an unusual combination of whore and visual artist) soon leads to his murder.

Amid the interplay of investigations, ranging from a Guard’s quiet pursuit of traitors to that murder mystery (probed by something like a private eye), Newton gradually reveals an extraordinary city and realm during a time of accelerating change. He gives some insights into a prehuman past touched with the stuff of fantasy, and provides more than simple black and white motives for an expanding cast of ‘‘villains’’ – one with what may be a noble motive, others outright bad guys, and even a scientist/techno-magician who bears some resemblance to Doctor Victor Frankenstein.

For all the unearthly aspects of the tale, the sordid mess of city life and politics helps drive some of its plots. At times Villjamur seem more urban than fantastic, like one discreetly sleazy district whose shops are ‘‘high-end purveyors of drugs and erotica, where you could apparently find ‘love potions’ conducive to controlled rape.’’ Inspector Jeryd reflects that ‘‘as long as you had enough money you could get whatever you wanted… wander these streets and become defined by your fetishes.’’

While Nights of Villjamur narrowly averts its escalating threats of chaos and disaster, more dangers clearly await in sequel City of Ruin and another volume to come. I look forward to whatever Mark Charan Newton has to offer, for he’s already a master of the SF/fantasy hybrid.

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