Wednesday, 9 March 2011

‘City of Ruin’ – Mark Charan Newton (Tor UK)

More so than at any other time, last year was as much about the books I never got round to reading as it was the books I did; I have a horrible feeling that this year will be very much the same... You all know the reason why by now so I won’t go into too much detail; suffice it to say that she’s finding the whole teething thing really painful and she has just discovered that all my ‘Black Company’ and Brian Keene books are at the bottom of the bookshelf. Time for a little rearranging I think!

Just because I missed out on these books last year doesn’t mean that I’ve given up on them entirely though, the backlog in the reading list just got a little heavier that’s all (I don’t know what that means for my reading ‘The Heroes’ any time soon, sorry Joe...) Take ‘City of Ruin’ for instance. Here’s a book that has waited patiently to be picked up since June or July last year and I only managed to get to it in the last week or so. I did it though and, after a year of reading fairly slim paperbacks, it felt like a bit of an achievement to get through something a little more substantial. And you know what? ‘City of Ruin’ isn’t a bad book either...

The city of Villiren is a city wracked by chaos and threatened by danger from without. While an invading army gathers on Villiren’s far shores, its citizens seek personal gain while they can via shady deals in the corridors of power and half human gangs scrabbling for power in ruined streets. Commander Brynd Lathraea, of the Night Guard, has the unenviable task of uniting this fractious city in the face of its true threat but certain people in Villiren have their own plans for the commander, especially when a secret of his is discovered... If that wasn’t enough, a soldier of the Night Guard has gone missing and the evidence points to a serial killer who cannot possibly be human.
Can Villiren be saved from the invaders without as well as its own corrupting influences? Does a city like Villiren even deserve to be saved...?

‘Nights of Villjamur’ was a gorgeous read and I was interested to see if Newton could maintain both the standard of his writing and the momentum of the plot. The good news (you’ve probably already read the book so you know this already) is that Newton succeeds on both fronts and in some style with a tale that gets you thinking as much as it gets your blood pumping when things kick off towards the end. That’s not to say that there aren’t a couple of issues that niggled at me slightly but, on the whole, ‘City of Ruin’ is a book that can stand proudly alongside its predecessor.

The end of the world is still on the horizon but it’s a lot closer for the people of Villiren (than it is for those in Villjamur) and it’s interesting to see the scene that Newton sets as a result. Whereas Villjamur enjoys a contemplative view of oblivion, Villiren is right in the middle of it and fuel is added to this fire by the treatment of the local population by an Empire seeking the best for itself at the expense of the outlying regions. When hardship is this immediate and in your face, all you can do is look out for yourself and make the best of this. Newton captures this air of ‘aggressive resignation’ in a city where if you’re not looking to expand your power then you’re partying until it all comes crashing down. I wouldn’t want to live in Villiren but I couldn’t help but be drawn into it by the manic energy that’s in everything going on. Two books have shown us the two extremes of reaction to the apocalypse; I’m left wondering if there’s a middle ground and whether Newton will show us this? I also noted that the homages to M. John Harrison’s ‘Viriconium’ were just that this time round and not influences that came across too heavily on the page. It was fun picking them out this time!

If that wasn’t enough for you, you’ll be pleased to know that the plot is just as compelling (at least as far as I was concerned). Newton introduces his monstrous creation very early on and I have to say that my fears of it being too similar to Mieville’s ‘Weaver’ proved to be unfounded. Sure, they’re both giant spiders but Newton’s is an entirely different beast and I’m in awe of the way that its true identity is hidden in plain sight. The number of times I was told and never picked up on the message (although I cottoned on fairly quickly with another intriguing question that is raised)... A plot full of intriguing questions and half answers that push things forward is what is promised and that’s what we get; resolutions have all the more impact as they crystallize suddenly from a murky darkness of vague suggestions... One such moment that I wasn’t too sure of though was the introduction of Artemisia and how this affected the final battle for Villiren (a battle, by the way, that is truly apocalyptic and leaves us in no doubt as to the price that must be paid afterwards...) This plot strand came out of left field a little too hard to really gel with everything else that was happening. I reckon it will make a lot more sense as the series progresses (and more detail comes to light) but, right now, it doesn’t quite fit.

While Newton leads his readers on this merry chase through the streets of Villiren, he also takes time to show us the people making up the populace; how they are shaping events and how these events in turn shape then. When Newton hits the target here it is done to great effect and you really get to see how characters such as Beami can still take control of their lives in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Newton’s real skill here is making you care about these characters and there is a lot for you to care about.

What didn’t feel quite right, as far as character studies go, was the treatment of the homophobia facing Commander Brynd. I couldn’t quite believe that he would let himself be found out like that but was prepared to let that one go, these things happen I guess. What didn’t sit quite right with me though was how the homophobic reaction was displayed in such a one dimensional way... Don’t get me wrong, homophobia is a particularly one dimensional kind of hatred but it really felt like such a key part of a multi-faceted character demanded a response that had a little more depth to it than ‘I hate you because you’re gay’. Really? Why? In one sense I think Newton got this reaction spot on (like I said, one dimensional hatred) but, on the page, it felt like it needed something extra to back it up. What it came across as was a means of moving the plot from A to B instead an interaction between people, something Newton does very well over the rest of the book.

This is a relatively small complaint though when the book itself is such an enthralling read. At the end, a particular character is left waiting for another and I’m waiting for ‘The Book of Transformations’ in much the same way. The difference is that I know it will come, it can’t come soon enough.

Nine and a Half out of Ten


Elfy said...

I'm really pleased to read that you liked City of Ruin, because I've only recently read Nights of Villjamur, thought it was excellent and was hoping that the sequel would live up to it's predecessor.

Graeme Flory said...

As far as I'm concerned it totally lived up to the standard set by 'Nights of Villjamur', you've got yourself some good reading ahead of you there! ;o)

Mark Lawrence said...

dammit! more 'must read' fantasy... reading blogs is clearly bad for my time management. Nice review.