Monday, 16 August 2010

Review: Nights of Villjamur by Mark Charan Newton

The ancient city of Villjamur is threatened by a long-expected ice age, and thousands of refugees from the coming freeze are camped outside its gates, causing alarm and the threat of disease for the existing population. When the Emperor commits suicide, his elder daughter, Rika, is brought home to inherit the Jamur Empire, but the sinister Chancellor plans to get rid of her and claim the throne for himself.

Meanwhile an officer in the Inquisition, in pursuit of a mysterious killer, also uncovers a conspiracy within the Council to solve the refugee crisis by wholesale slaughter, and a cultist magician is causing a trail of havoc in his search for immortality and his obsessive quest to gain access into another world. To the far fringes of the Empire is despatched military commander to investigate a mysterious new race of undead that seems intent on genocide of the most gruesome nature.

Gradually the separate strands of romance, jealousy, political intrigue and dark violence converge in a superb new action series of enthralling fantasy.

Regular visitors to The Book Zone will know that I am not a huge fan of fantasy. Of all the boy-friendly genres it is probably the one I read the least, and when it comes to adult fantasy fiction it is a rare thing for me to devote time to what invariably seems to me a pretty heavy, wordy tome. I have been trying to address that recently, and loved China Mieville's Kraken, although this did not match with the definition of fantasy that I have in my mind. Then, out of the blue, the kind people at Tor sent me a copy of Mark Charan Newton's Nights of Villjamur, and it being the school summer holidays, and me having a little more time to devote to reading (and I have also read a lot of good comments about this book on Twitter and various other sites) I thought I would give it a try. The verdict? I think I am now totally hooked on the incredible world that the author has created.

The majority of boys don't seem to 'do' the YA thing. I have noticed that boys at school who come to us as avid readers at the age of 11 will happily read the likes of the Harry Potter books and Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus trilogy, but as soon as they hit the age of 13 or 14 they prefer to move away from books written specifically for Young Adults and progress straight on to books written for adults. In fact I have noticed this even more since the Twilight phenomenon - it's almost as if they are concerned that YA fantasy will be laced with romance and is therefore 'for girls'. Adult books on the other hand, have action, violence and intrigue, and the romance, whilst often there, is only a small part of the overall plot. So action/adventure loving boys progress onto the likes of Matthew Reilly, James Rollins and Clive Cussler; and for fantasy lovers there is a wealth of books for them to enjoy, and I will certainly be recommending Nights of Villjamur when we return in September.

There is a lot going on in this book, but whilst in the past I have struggled with some fantasy due to the lengthy descriptive passages about the world in which the story is set, I got along very well with Mark Charan Newton's writing style; he doesn't use four hundred words when forty will do to describe a scene or an element in his world. This being a genre I am not used to reading, there were of course moments though when I did start to lose concentration as I have done in the past, but somehow he managed to bring my focus back with a small twist in the plot, or a devious action by one of his characters, or a scene involving action or blood and guts. However, once I got into the final third of the book there was certainly no loss of focus - as the various plot strands started to come together I found myself reading into the early hours and had to force myslef to put the book down in order to sleep. As I said, there is a lot going on, but at no point does it ever feel that there is too much going on, and although the story's point of view jumps back and forth every now and again to focus on different characters, it was always easy to follow and at no point did I feel that the plot was becoming confusing.

There are some great characters in this book, some developed more fully than others, however the 'star of the show' is most definitely the city of Villjamur itself. Mark Charan Newton describes this city as if he has lived there all of his life, and I suspect that in his creative mind it has been with him for years. It is the kind of city that as a reader I both wanted to visit for myself, yet at the same time I knew that given the chance I would probably spend every minute of the journey worrying about what could happen to me when I got there. And despite it being a fantasy novel, the city is also very relevant to teenage boys in our modern world - there is the rich minority, including corrupt politicians, who have the majority of the city's resources whilst 'down below' there is poverty, misery and a thriving criminal underclass. It could almost be London. Add to this a steadily growing mass of refugees gathering outside the city gates in hope of aid and shelter from the worsening ice age that has the region in its grip, and you have the added humanitarian issues add to the plot, again something that is very real in our own world. Fantasy books like this are therefore really important for teenage boys, as they are reading about and gaining an understading of real-world issues, but in the fantasy setting that holds their attention more than a newspaper would.

As well as Villjamur, the author has created a fascinating world, with a history, numerous religions, magicians (known as cultists, who have mastered ancient technologies within a multitude of artefacts to create their magic), and even the undead have a part to play. This author has one hell of an imagination - I would be intrigued to see what he could produce if he ever decided to write for a younger audience.

I have one small moan however, and although I will be recommending this book to the teenage fantasy lovers at school, it will be accompanied with a few words of caution due to the occasional use of swear words. I gather from a few Twitter conversations that swearing in fantasy books is the 'in thing' at the moment, but to me it didn't seem necessary. I'm no prude, after all the kids at school use and/or hear similar language on a daily basis in the playground at break, but for me it grated a little. There is also a degree of sexual content in the book, although it is not at all graphic, but should we buy a copy for the library the book would be shelved with the adult fiction for the older readers because of this.

Nights of Villjamur is available to buy in both hardback and paperback, and City of Ruin, the second book in the Legends of the Red Sun series, is also available in hardback.