Recently, I reviewed Mark Charan Newton’s The Book of Transformations, the penultimate book in the Legends of the Red Sun series. I don’t usually revisit books I’ve finished and reviewed, but something got me thinking.
My brother, Alek Cristea, had a very different view of The Book of Transformations to me. He reviewed it, and gave it just two stars out of five, where I gave it a full five stars. Now, this is a little odd to me, as we have unswervingly similar tastes in books: we read the same and pass books between us, knowing what the other will or will not like.
So why was this book different?
Well, I think our approaches were very different.
I think readers need to be aware of something when they embark upon a Mark Charan Newton novel: you’re not going to get regular fantasy. Newton doesn’t deal in sword and sorcery, and I’d even go as far as saying he shirks the regular tropes of epic and high fantasy, too. If anything, if you’ll go with my line of thought momentarily, I think “low fantasy” is closer to what Newton writes than any other fantasy subgenre.
Well, as far as I see it—and let’s face it, the definitions we could offer to all the fantasy subgenres out there will be as differing and subjective as the books themselves—low fantasy offers a different, fantastical world that’s not too fantastic. Instead, we get a world that could be our own—or at least a social, political or religious (sometimes all three) backdrop that mimics our own world and cultures very closely. Newton uses the essence of low fantasy as a stage upon which to air his voice—he’s concerned with character and message (or thought, and the provocation of thought). He has less concern for worldbuilding, and instead, crafts only what is necessary upon which his own philosophies can play out.
It’s like a set for a film: why build a city, when you can build the single street, two houses and a walkway that will feature in the film the most? I’m not saying Newton doesn’t worldbuild—of course he does; he gives us cities teeming with life, and chains of islands that stretch out into the ice—but I am saying it’s not his primary concern. The characters and their stories are what Newton seems to write for.
Reading Newton’s work requires the same awareness at the back of your head that I imagine delving into China Miévile novel demands: you know you’re not going to get something normal, so you have to switch the way in which you read accordingly.
In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed The Book of Transformations—yes, I had my problems with it, I just didn’t mention them in the review, because they felt irrelevant overall. Part of the reason I enjoyed it so much, I think, were the parallels I drew with it, in relation to my favourite science-fiction series.
I’ve often heard people scoffing, or sneering and turning their noses up at this series, and can’t for the life of me think why. It’s a fantastic lesson in both general storytelling, as well as a great instructor for how to weave a story across many, many seasons, or, in this case, books. If Babylon 5 had been a regular SFF book, it would have been longer (and more exciting, but hey, I’m not a fan) than A Song of Ice and Fire. It would have been an SFF epic.
Because it was just that: epic.
Now, maybe fans out there have seen these parallels too, and know where I’m going with this. Maybe it’s just me and how I’ve viewed things—who knows? Regardless, people who haven’t read The Book of Transformations (or any of the Red Sun series for that matter) will encounter massive spoilers hereafter.
We have two different races—maybe we’ll see them as old races, it’s what they appear, advanced as they are—and one singular collective of people. I won’t call them a “race”, because that gets complicated when we think of the Rumel. However, let’s liken them to the younger races in Babylon 5.
See where this is going?
I propose that the race Artemisia represents be dubbed the Vorlons, and the other side, the Shadows. Tell me that doesn’t at least resonate just a little bit? Jumping back a little to City of Ruin, take Rika and tell me that she couldn’t—with a little imagination, entirely based on her role in the story—make for a convincing likeness to Delenn? Of course, even for me that’s a little stretch, however, less of a stretch is the comparison between John Sheridan and Brynd Lathraea—their placements in both stories, the responsibilities that pile up on them, and the measures they take all echo each other, especially as we consider seasons three and four of Babylon 5 as the Shadow War develops.
I’m not saying all this is exact, that’s not the point, but I am saying I was reminded of these things. Plus, I didn’t say this was a bad thing. Did I say how much I adored this series?
And, on the other side, let’s not forget about Morden. Yes, yes, I’m going to compare him with Dartun, and yes, there are many, many differences between their characters, and yet, many, many similarities, too. Perhaps Dartun didn’t have a choice in becoming what he did, and even if Morden wasn’t changed by the Shadows, he certainly became their servant in a strikingly similar way.
I got very excited during The Book of Transformations when these thoughts popped to mind, and far, far more excited for the forthcoming final book. I want to see if any of my theories will play out; I want to see the equivalent of the Shadow War play on in the wreckage of this world. If we take it as a game of chess, then—just like Babylon 5—game-pieces have been put down, we had a check or two in Nights, more in City and a very near miss for checkmate in the penultimate instalment. The checkmate is coming… and it’s just a matter of seeing how the two sides station their pieces, which side might feint, which might sacrifice a pawn, and which will topple the king on the very last square.
It’ll be a good show, and all this resonance has just made me all the more eager to read the final stage in this grandiose war. That, and I’d be an extremely happy fanboy if, at the end, Brynd Lathraea were able to cry “Get the hell outta our galaxy (well, world…)” at some point. In fact, that would be glorious.