Nights of Villjamur
Mark Charan Newton
This book fulfils most of the hallmarks of epic fantasy: a positive throng of characters, a large amount of worldbuilding, lots of dire forebodings about a coming end of the world, super-evil evil characters, etc. I'm not a big epic fantasy fan. I find that when it is good, it is really, really good, but when it is bad... well, you get the picture. So if you are an epic fantasy fan, ignore my review and try this book. There are a lot of original ideas and epic potential here; it might be a good fit. Even better, try it on audio. The reader is fantastic. It seriously gained an entire star, possibly a star and a half from me, solely because of general reader awesomeness.
If I could pick one word to describe this book, it would be "incoherent."
To get the idea, let my try to describe the characters and plot.
In a world with several different races and a large and imperialistic empire, an ice age is coming, and everyone is afraid about it. (Apparently an "ice age" means a few decades of bad weather, and no explanation is ever given as to how the people know to predict said ice age.) There are a bunch of sects of cultists who collect powerful relics (no explanation for said relics), a random banning of all but a few major religions (no explanations here, either), a power-hungry chancellor full of nefarious schemes to gain power, a sorcerer who is raising the dead (not a good explanation of why said sorcerer did so is really ever given), a bunch of mysterious murders by magic in the city (a ridiculously inadequate explanation for the method and motivation is given here. This pissed me off SO MUCH. We have a woman who (with no explanation) has the ability to pain portraits that can bring about the death of anyone and who is trying to stop the murder of the refugees. She knows that Urtica is responsible, but never tries to attack him. Why? Since there is no rational reason, it's plain old narrative convenience, and a particularly galling example at that.]), a quest for another world, and the arrival of a bunch of alien lobster-like monsters who apparently seek to invade and destroy (you guessed it...no explanation),... well, the number of elements to the plot just keep coming. All of these ideas are good by themselves, but to me, it felt like none of them were sufficiently well thought out or developed. The book just couldn't decide what it wanted to be: it has a few elements of political thriller, but the politics are made too black and white to fit this genre. We have a few battles, but no focus on the warrior characters. There are several elements of mystery and intrigue, but just as they start getting interesting, the narration swaps to the point of view of the villains and we find out the whys and wherefores. This left the plot as an jumbled muddle, a tangle of plot thread resolutions and introductions, and no coherent arc.
The biggest failing for me is one that goes hand in hand with the epic fantasy genre: a certain sense of grandeur and a tendency to take itself far too seriously. For example, I felt like the book tried very hard to be acute political satire, but it lacked subtlety and dimension. For instance, we have an evil leader who uses a vicious attack on a small set of soldiers to claim that a rival country has
weapons of mass destruction--uh, powerful cultist relics--to justify an imperialism-driven attack upon them. This same leader uses fear to shut down the borders of the city and prevent refugees from entering (They're illegal aliens! They carry disease! They'll take away food and jobs!) and threats of potential terrorism to enforce a Patriot Act--uh, I mean, stronger search and seizure laws. He secretly wants to exterminate all the refugees...apparently for no better reason except that they look messy. Said leader is indisputably evil-evil; he murdered his own parents because they irritated him. It's all a one-sided characterization. Making a character that evil is lazy; anyone with him is automatically bad and anyone against him is automatically good. See what I mean about lacking subtlety and actual analysis? At the same time, the protagonists' attitude of let-the-refugees-all-die-during-the-ice-age-but-don't-outright-kill-them is...you guessed it... incoherent.
As is standard for epic fantasy, there are a *load* of characters, and the book bounces between the perspectives of well over a dozen of them. To name the major ones, we have a noble albino guard, a privileged princess, a thieving cassanova, a scarred prostitute, a dutiful member of the inquisition (which functions as police, among other things), an ancient cultist trying to find a secret to let him live for ever, an uber-evil chancellor, ... well, the list just keeps going. In my opinion, we get the plot from the perspectives of too many characters, even for epic fantasy. It seems to me to be a lazy way of plot exposition: rather than developing characters or figuring out how to really tell the story through the eyes of a limited set, just keep switching them to get to the action scenes. And unfortunately, characterization wasn't well done. All of the characters have very similar voices, and all sounded oddly artificial to me, rather like a 21st-century LARPer trying to stay in character. The audiobook was a saving grace here: the narrator managed, via intonation and accent, to inject a touch of personality into each of them. Even with this, the characters felt to me to be...you guessed it... incoherent. For example, our friendly lathario is perfectly happy to borrow someone's identity, act as a gigolo, and rob jewellery from his victims, ostensibly because he wants to help his mother live forever. And then suddenly he falls in *lurve*, forgets about his mother, and becomes a noble rescuing hero. It didn't feel like character development to me; he didn't go through any form of self-realization or dramatic event. It just felt like inconsistency. The same was true for all the other characters as well. The narration tends to fall into the "tell rather than show" zone when trying to get into the characters' heads, so all felt flat and impersonal to me.
Overall, I think the author has a bunch of creative ideas. Unfortunately, he tried to shoehorn them all into a single book at the expense of coherence and developed characters. If you really, really like epic fantasy and you're willing to be in this one for the long haul, take a look at this. In particular, check it out on audio. Despite the serious cliffhangers and unanswered questions (seriously, why are there random crustacean monsters running around?), I'm not planning on picking up the next book; however, I think the author has a lot of potential and will be worth watching out for as he develops his craft.