The penultimate book of the Legends of the Red Sunseries, by Mark Charan Newton—The Book of Transformations—is set to make the same kind of waves as the previous two instalments, but in entirely different areas. Whilst Newton’s work still exhibits a subtle political flavour and raises questions about life, humanity and the world view, The Book of Transformations delves even deeper than his previous work, boldly addressing issues that are too often ignored.
Firstly, though, I’ll start by saying just how much more fun than the other two books The Book of Transformations is: whilst Nights of Villjamur rocked that “city noir” vibe, tossing in mystery and political machinations, and City of Ruin brought to the table all the tension and atmosphere of a ruined and corrupt city and its inner cogs, readying to face the onslaught of an advancing war, The Book of Transformations brings superheroes to the table.
Fitting, really, that with a summer of comic-book adapted movies ahead, we should be treated to a very new kind of fantasy. It’s been said before that new genre labels may well need to be created for Newton’s work, and this latest offering does nothing to quieten that thought. Describing The Book of Transformations as “superhero fantasy” perfectly conveys the flavour of the book: a team of super-human citizens of Villjamur become the blurb-mentioned Villjamur Knights.
But, as this is Newton we’re talking about, there is so much more.
It’s no secret that Newton decided to write about a transsexual lead. There was much speculation (alright…I know I speculated) as to which “way” the transsexual lead would be changing. I got what I hoped for: Lan is an MtF transsexual. She essentially used to be a man. She now is not a man. It’s as simple as that. (And it really is that simple.) I hoped it would be this sort of change, for two reasons: 1) because the notion of a woman binding her chest and passing herself as a man is a little too close to cliché in the realms of fantasy literature (I believe there’s even a Terry Pratchett joke about this in one of his novels, where a whole regiment turns out to be women in disguise?), and 2) because it would be far, far more interesting to read about.
Simply put, Lan was one of my favourite characters. Not only was she fascinating, but she was also exceedingly normal. That was the point. Newton had to force the issue that Lan is a normal character, and he does this remarkably well. Her transition features briefly, and following this, Lan is Lan. Her change is not the focus of the story. It’s not important. What is important is her new life and her role in the events transpiring in the city—a city facing destruction from inside and out.
Following the loss of Rumex Jeryd in Villiren, Investigator Fulcrom takes up the Inquisitor medallion for this instalment. His role in The Book of Transformations is a pivotal one, as much of the plot unfolds around him and his actions. Placed in an awkward position of direct service to the Emperor—the same Emperor he knows to be corrupt, and responsible for the wrongful arrest and subsequent fleeing of the Empress Rika—Fulcrom must conduct himself carefully under the order of a man he knows to be untrustworthy and excessively ruthless. In addition, the freshly formed and enhanced Villjamur Knights are placed under his jurisdiction. The Emperor expects results, and if these are not produced, Fulcrom’s life may well be forfeit.
At the heart of The Book of Transformations is change: Villjamur is changing; characters undergo changes; the world itself it set to change, should the wishes of one fugitive priest come to pass; the pressure of power weighs heavily; and forces from other worlds set the game-pieces in play, preparing for something even bigger than war.
As a standalone novel, The Book of Transformations works better than Nights of Villjamur, or City of Ruin, neither of which I think work as well independently. Of course, being part of a series, there are strands which link all three books. However, there are more new plot points and characters introduced here, and the way in which the story returns to Villjamur simply flows well enough to be considered in isolation.
Still, as I’ve maintained throughout, the books work far better as a series.
As a whole, the Legends of the Red Sun series becomes more powerful with each book. Showcasing science-fiction, science-fantasy, and ‘new weird’ as well as classic fantasy ideas, the final book is shaping up to be something entirely unique again. The way in which the war between the two factions revealed in City of Ruin is developing very much reminds me of the Vorlon-Shadow war in Babylon 5: this isn’t a bad thing, as the series is my favourite science-fiction series of all time, and as well as being politically and philosophically deep, it was incredibly original and boasted unique methods of storytelling.
The Book of Transformations isn’t my favourite of the series—entirely because I am an unashamed Brynd Lathraea fanboy and he’s obviously absent, busy in Villiren as he is—but it is definitely my second favourite. It’s an extremely fun and exciting read, filled with all the political awareness you expect from Newton. In fact, The Book of Transformations is one of the most thrilling, fun books you’ll read this summer: its excellence is surpassed only by its sheer scope and imagination. Once again, Villjamur comes to life in the pages of this book.
A winner. Read it.