Friday, 24 June 2011
Wardog tries and fails to like Nights of Villjamur.
I really should have liked Nights of Villjamur more than I did. And that's the sort of line that sets one up for a damning review but I honestly feel quite bad about it. It's full of the sort of things I generally appreciate but for some reason it left me frustrated that it wasn't, with all this promise and potential, somehow better. Without attempting to make uncontrolled, unsupported declarations about a genre as complicated and evolving as fantasy, I'd put Mark Charan Newton on the same team as writers like Abercrombie and Abraham, although if you're into literary genealogy you can certainly trace the influence of Vance and Mieville in there too. But what I'm trying to get at here is that we're talking punchy, modern fantasy; brutal, cynical, self-consciously anti-Tolkeinesque and hopefully weighing in at five hundred pages or less. The problem is, however, that as much as I enjoy this uppity, edgy, fantasy, there's already an extent to which it's becoming stale. Maybe if I'd read Nights of Villjamur two years ago, my tiny mind would have been appropriately blown, but I came away with the distinct impression it was like Abercrombie without the style and Abraham without the sophistication. On the other hand, it is a début novel and it is not by any means totally awful so I'd certainly be at least mildly interested in seeing how Newton develops.
The Jamur Empire is yer typical rich, sprawling, corrupt fantasy Empire, except there's an ice-age coming, and the Emperor has just killed himself in a fit of crazed paranoia. Cue: political shenanigans, and some other stuff. The reason I'm having a hard job summarising the plot effectively is that it's one of those multi-stranded jobbies, but the threads only come together right at the end, if at all, which makes the experience of reading Nights of Villjamur rather disjointed. Some of the involved parties are: Commander Brynd Lathraea, doing soldiery things, Inquisitor Jeryd investigating the murder of a city councillor, and Randur Estevu who hails from some kind of island race of martial artists / sex workers / dancers and has been brought to Villjamur to teach the Emperor's daughter how to dance.
I liked, in abstract terms, nearly all of these characters but their plots arcs were so wildly different in tone and style that, rather than illuminating different aspects of life in Villjamur as I suspect must have been the intention, they interfered with each other. Jeryd, for example, acts like he's in The Maltese Falcon - he's old and weary and tormented by the failures of his personal life. He's also a weird cat-person-creature but let's not go there. I had no idea what was going on with the rumel, and the last time I encountered a cat-based race it was in Green, so I'm still scarred. But his consistent failure to solve the crime, when even I was sitting there able to solve the crime, was infuriating and the the whole “one honest man versus political corruption” theme does not, in this case, co-exist comfortably in a world where you also have Brynd dealing with the brutal slaughter of entire populations. I know the counter-argument to this is “ah, but that's the point” but if it is the point Newton does not carry it off particularly successfully, especially when Randur's swashbuckling antics are entirely at variance with both. Newton goes to great pains to create a society on the verge of ruin, a city rife with decadence and cruelty, and a world overrun with monsters and yet Randur is able to semi-thwart a massive political uprising, and stage a daring rescue, with a jolly group of peasants, who, despite living in deprivation and povert, are suddenly willing to fight to the death in defence of their oppressors. I don't, per se, have a problem with the more cartoon elements of fantasy but you can't serve up Chandler, Owen and Disney simultaneously.
It doesn't help that the supporting cast is extensive and depressingly one-dimensional. You have a Tuya, the jaded prostitute, Tryst, Jeryd's ambitious Iago-like aid who does, in fact, spend two thirds of the book engaged in acts of motiveless malignancy, Marysa, Jeryd's tediously virtuous and personality devoid wife, Eir the feisty Emperor's daughter who has her eyes opened to the true poverty of her kingdom, the fence with a heart of gold, the scheming councillor, the mad cultist, and so on and so forth. The three main characters are marginally better drawn but they lacked any true psychological depth or complexity.
Jeryd, for example, is manipulated by Tryst into believing his wife has cheated on him. Heading home in a partially drug-fuelled rage, he strikes her. Conveniently she wakes up somewhat confused and Jeryd lets her believe it was a dream. Neither the dimensions or the consequences of this are ever properly explored, nor are we really given opportunity to ponder how much responsibility (if any) Jeryd bears for either the action itself, or lying about it afterwards. Brynd's big secret is that he's gay, in a society where homosexuality is punishable by death, due to a line in one of the scriptures. I actually quite liked Brynd, but being tormented and alienated is still not really a substitute for having a personality. The presentation of his homosexuality wavers between the quite good and the horrendously heavy handed. Something that does come across well is the fact that it would be incidental to his character if not for the world in which he lives. And the chapter in which he meets up with his lover, Kym, struck me as reasonably successful, as the encounter is recounted with neither sentimentality nor sensationalism. But it's the only moment of subtlety in the entire text, and the rest of the time we're treated to reflections like this:
“Where's the big freak?” Apium said, before yawning and stretching with the grace of a tramp, astride his black horse.
“I take it you mean Jurro?” Brynd said, after considering for a moment that he himself was the freak, or maybe Kym – men who loved other men, and who'd be killed if discovered. He could never shake off the paranoia.
I understand that this would be something on his mind a lot, but it's the clumsy exposition that really sinks it for me. This exchange takes place on page 331 of my edition – if I haven't got that Brynd is gay, and that being gay is punishable by death, by this point in the book, I don't think there's much more an author can be expected to do for me. Much of the interior life of the major characters is narrated to us in this flat, expository way. I don't want to fall back on trite maxims about writing but I would have liked to see character traits illuminated or demonstrated more through thoughts, interaction and behaviour, rather than simply being told about them.
Randur, for example, comes to the city through a slightly spurious set of circumstances in order to raise enough money for a cultist to bring his mother back from the dead. In order to get the cash, he has his job at the palace, teaching Eir to dance, but he also sleeps with rich, older women and steals their jewellery. He does explain, at one point, that he feels like he owes his mother a debt for all she has sacrificed for him but it never really feels convincing. After all, sense of filial obligation is one thing. Necromancy another. Needless to say, over the course of the book, he and Eir fall for each other and it turns out that resurrecting his mother isn't going to be possible, even with the money in hand. Here is the description of Randur's response:
His world imploded. Lying on Eir's bed later, he felt he wanted to vomit, but instead he cried like a ten-year-old as he told her everything. She sat next to him and waited for him to finish – he knew that, and he felt ashamed, to expose his emotions like this. But, despite her age, she possessed an unexpected, motherly quality. He liked that. After that, he got up and left, walked for two hours across the city bridges, then returned, damp and cold.
Then he resumed crying.
Eir held his hand. “It's understandable you're upset, Rand, so don't be so harsh on yourself.”
She got up and lit lanterns and soothing incense and waited for him to compose himself. He realised he was comfortable being vulnerable in front of her. Soon he began to feel better, until somehow his failings as a son didn't seem to matter quite as much.
Given that this is a significant moment in Randur's personal development, and his relationship with Eir, I felt it was rather over-narrated but I read the ease which he apparently gets over it as evidence that his original goal was immature, and not something we were really expected to take seriously. However, a chapter later we're being narrated at again:
Eir had even given him some jewellery: a plain silver chain to go around his neck, two rings for his fingers. She had supported him so much that he felt he owed her is very soul if only he could give it. Eir's biggest gift to him wasn't monetary but psychological. Perhaps all he'd ever needed was to actually love someone else.
Once more, I can't quite unpack the tone of this. It sounds so ludicrously trite that I was half-tempted to read it as being in some way ironic. And I'm, incidentally, not thrilled with Eir's sudden detour into maternal saviour, although I can't tell whether that's meant to be Randur's distorted perspective, since Eir only has about three personality traits and none of them, thus far, have been even remotely maternal. But ultimately it's just another example of the way that heavy-handed attempts to explain the psychological development of the characters ruins their portrayal.
The other thing you can see from these quoted paragraphs, is the occasional banality of the writing, and its general clumsiness. For example, we have three awkwardly repeated 'thats' far too close to each other in “he knew that, and he felt ashamed, to expose his emotions like this. But, despite her age, she possessed an unexpected, motherly quality. He liked that. After that...” The book is riddled with such unnecessary annoyances, and the style itself is as inconsistent as everything else. Dialogue is generally naturalistic, with a fair few fucks thrown in for good measure, the prose style is plain and expository to the point of tedium, but occasionally Newton struggles towards a Mieville-like excess, which often just falls flat:
A truculunt pain shot through him and he screamed … he stumbled forwards, his hands clutching for wet stones, then began to spit blood on the ground … Sensing his life fluid filling the cracks between the cobbles, the blood beetles came and began to smother him, till his screams could be heard amplified between the high walls of the courtyard. One even scurried into his mouth, scraping eagerly as his gums and tongue. He bit down so he wouldn't choke, split its shell in two, and spat it out, but he could still taste its ichors.
Councillor Ghuda was violently febrile.
I honestly have no idea what that means. I understand the individual words but the connection between them, and the the being eaten alive by bugs, not so much. A major component of Newton's Mieville Aspirations is the city of Villjamur itself, which I'm sure is meant to exist as vividly in the narrative as New Crobuzon in Perdido Street Station. I'm honestly not a huge fan of Perdido Street Station and I found the descriptions of the city a little overweening but I will admit that they got the job done. By contrast, Villjamur never became real to me and, if anything, Newton is trying so hard to have it make an impression on the reader that the overall affect is one of artificiality. Devices over conviction. For example, there's a self-conscious weirdness to Villjamur - it has blood beetles and banshees, and garuda – but these just feel like a checklist. And scenes or chapters tend to end with the narrative moving away from the thoughts and actions of the characters to more general statements about the mood of the Villjamur. The contrast, I suspect, is meant to create a sense of distance between the struggles of individuals and the vast intricacies of the city itself:
After that the three of them watched the falling snow in companionable silence. Street fires and lantern lights glared defiantly for another bell, but one by one they fell into shadow. Voices in the streets beyond quietened and soon there was only the sound of the wind probing the city's countless alleyways.
However, the more Newton falls back on this technique, the more transparent it becomes, and the more I resisted his attempts to “sell” me Villjamur. As the book progresses, he takes to refering to the city as if it should now be familiar to us (“Another one of those melancholy nights of Villjamur, in which a pterodette called out across the city's spires so loudly it sounded like a banshee”) but by that stage I was already convinced that Newton had failed to force me into a relationship with the city, and therefore this assumption of familiarity annoyed me and further alienated me from the Villjamur Newton was so desperately trying to evoke.
The thing is, barrage of negativity aside, it's not as bad as all that. I did, after all, read the thing and I was mildly engaged by the plot and some of the characters, even in spite of the heavy-handed narration and my increasingly irritation with having Villjamur forced down my throat. As a personal, rather than general, criticism I realised at about the halfway point that there wasn't a single interesting woman in the entire book. Obviously having diverse and well-rounded female characters isn't a moral necessity and it's perfectly reasonable for any writer to simply not be interested but for me to really enjoy a text I'd probably prefer it wasn't a massive sausage party. The Emperor's eldest daughter seems intriguing but she isn't in it enough for me to be able to judge. Eir is feisty-by-numbers and, consequently, irritating. Tuya starts off promising and then gets drugged and abused by Tryst, in his pursuit of revenge over Jeryd, so she essentially becomes a cipher. Jeryd's wife is so lightly sketched she's barely a character at all. To be fair to Newton, the men aren't that interesting either but they at least get more page time. However, the one thing I did like was what I perceived to be a fairly healthy attitude to sex, both heterosexual and homosexual. There are a few non-explicit but nicely down-to-earth sex scenes. But, like anything else in Villjamur, sex is largely another commodity – and the men trade it as much as the women do. I liked the fact that women, incidental though they are to the text in general, were as active in pursuit of sex as men, just as acquisitive of pretty young things, and seemed to derive as much pleasure from it.
This being so, and because we haven't had one for a while, I present: Fantasy Rape Watch for Nights of Villjamur.
Number of non-straight men: 2
Number of non-straight men killed: 0
Number of non-straight women: 0
Number of men who sell themselves: 3 maybe*
Number of men who sell themselves who are killed: 0
Number of men who sell themselves who find twu wuv: 2
Number of men who sell themselves where the woman obligingly makes herself look hot for them: 1
Number of women who sell themselves: 1
Number of women who sell themselves who are killed: 1
Number of women who sell themselves who find twu wuv: 0
Number of women who sell themselves who manage to survive a bomb: 0
Number of virtuous, married women who manage to survive the same bomb: 1
*I am including in this category, Randur who sleeps with rich old women in order to pay for necromantic magic, Tryst who sleeps with an old cultist in order to acquire something he needs, and Kym who it seems to be suggesting gets around a bit.
Obviously, I'm being slightly unfair on Newton here. I wasn't actually all that bothered by the fact that Randur manwhores his way around Villjamur and this is sort of portrayed as being vaguely cool, whereas Tuya is stuck in a cycle of loneliness and bitterness. I saw this as being largely down to the fact they are very different people, and Randur is young whereas Tuya is forty. However, I was a bit annoyed by the fact Tuya, who had all the markings of being quite interesting (shock!), was treated the way she was by the narrative - victimised, sidelined and then
In conclusion I would say that although I have really hammered into Nights of Villjamur, it's not actually as bad as all that. I found it quite frustrating to read but I didn't actively hate it: I liked Brynd, and Newton seems to have quite a good grip on his gender politics. It certainly has some promise and I can only hope that this goes some way to being fulfilled in the later books.