Released in 2009, Nights of Villjamur introduces a brand new fantasy series that at once pushes the boundaries of the genre, whilst accepting its tropes and themes, with the single intention of bending and twisting the usual ideas of fantasy (and the fantastic), creating something new entirely.
Nights of Villjamur is no regular fantasy story—it is, instead, an example of the sheer scope our genre offers, and what can be done with it. Mark Charan Newton is demonstrating the power of the fantasy genre, using it as a fertile platform for his own moralistic and political ideas: throughout Nights of Villjamur, he invites us to consider issues about ourselves and our own world that are so predominantly relevant to current politics and ideas, though fictional, the stories within the pages of Nights strike a resounding chord.
There are immediate resonances that ring frighteningly true to our own political world: homosexuality is a crime, punishable by death; refugees flock to the gates of the great city, seeking refuge from the coming ice, and the disease and desolation it heralds; racial tensions flair between humans and rumel; forbidden technology, seen as “magical” by those who do not study it, angers church officials, and its users are akin to a cult (even named such); the Empire seeks to expand its borders across neighbouring islands that remain “uncivilized” and untouched by both the Jorsalir religion, and by its encompassing trade routes, despite the coming ice.
The issues in the story are presented from multiple viewpoints, so the reader is never cajoled into what the writer supposedly believes is “right”—there are several “right” ideas and concepts in the book, and several “wrong” ones, but moreover, a hefty measure of subjectivity which permeates the grey areas of morality. It’s what makes the story so powerful: it makes you think.
Of course, it’s not simply an elegantly dressed political metaphor: it’s an insight into a world so vast in vision and history that it feels like glimpsing what our own world could become—the idea that once we were greater than we are. Magic exists in Villjamur, however, this magic is produced by the use of relics—by pieces of long forgotten and losttechnology that requires research and understanding. Technology of a lost era. The implication that the world was more civilised, before whatever brought about at least its intellectual destruction or demise, is a notion that is oddly resonant. We built the pyramids and have forgotten how; we witnessed the Dark Ages.
Nights of Villjamur boasts a rich world and richer ideas, and the very streets come to life through his writing: you can smell the scents wafting from the bistros lining the icy cobbles, glimpse their patrons through their steamed windows.
The setting of any book can be as rich as you like, but it is through the characters presented, that a book really comes to life.
With a homosexual albino soldier—commander of the elite and enhanced Night Guard; a roguish far-islander, new to the city, with a selfless agenda that jars with his appearance; an ageing rumel inspector, determined to uncover the reason behind odd murders in the city; and the two remaining daughters of the soon-to-be late Emperor, Newton offers not only a rich and varied cast, but a cast that proffers at least one personality readers can identify with.
For me, the character of Commander Brynd Lathraea far outshines the rest: an altered and enhanced soldier, Brynd is in the possession of special abilities that allow combat on higher levels than before. Clad in the Night Guard’s black, Brynd is despatched from Villjamur just as he—and his remaining Night Guard—have returned from a battle that depleted their numbers, only to face alien invaders elsewhere along the island chain. Different due to pigment and preference, Brynd is a powerfully amiable character. He is a perfect message: a homosexual, and at the very head of the best unit of soldiers the Empire offers; different in skin and eye, and a man of great sensibility, wisdom and thought.
Simply said, Brynd rocks.
Nights of Villjamur is a fantastic “noir-fantasy” that evokes all the dark, gritty melancholy of the noir genre, whilst peppering the mix with political intrigue and danger. Set against the backdrop of the coming ice age, an added tension or even urgency propels the story onward, whilst the cast try to survive the dangers that face them, let alone the ice that will come next.
A brilliant new fantasy that struggles against genre labels: an exciting can’t-put-down sort of read that not only invites you to view a new world, but transports you there until the very last word. Absolutely and utterly excellent.