Nights of Villjamur by Mark Newton is the first in a series entitled Legends of the Red Sun. The setting is the Boreal Archipelago, though the vast majority of the action takes place in the capital of the Jamur Empire — the eponymous city of Villjamur. The empire is built on its military and the remnants of ancient technology scavenged, studied, and used or modified (not always as the original technology was intended) by a group of Cultists (who are subdivided into sects). The city’s inhabitants are made up of humans, rumel, one member (Jurra) of an Ancient race who has seemingly lived for a thousand years but has no memory, banshees — women whose visions of about-to-happen deaths allows them to arrive immediately afterward to keen the announcement, and Garudas — half bird/half man soldiers/guards.
As the book starts, the Empire is facing a slew of problems, both external and internal. The entire archipelago is being threatened by an impending ice age and refugees are threatening to overwhelm the capital. The Emperor is at best paranoid and at worst utterly crazy. Chancellor Urtica is plotting to usurp the emperor’s title for himself, as well as rid the city of all the refuges camped outside. A top cultist, Dartun, who had thought himself nearly immortal finds out it isn’t near enough, and along with experimenting with raising the dead is seeking the rumored gates into other realms where he might find life-extending technology/magic (and is not particularly concerned about what might come through from the other side). There are rumors of strange creatures and mass killings on outer islands, an underground and bloody religious cult is rearing its ugly head, and a manufactured war is about to begin.
Meanwhile, a councilor is murdered in odd fashion and a Rumel investigator, Jeryd, begins an investigation. Brynd, who commands the elite and cultist-enhanced Night Guard, suspects a high-up traitor whose information led to his group being nearly decimated in an ambush. We’re also introduced to Tuya, a lonely prostitute/artist whose paintings can come to life; Tryste, a human aide to Jeryd whose upset that he’s reached as high as he can go professionally due to humans being excluded from top policing levels (due to their short lives compared to the rumels); the Emperor’s two daughters: Eir — younger and impetuous — and Rika, whose been gone for years following a religious path. Then there’s Randur, a outland islander who has taken the identity of the man hired to tutor Eir in dance and swordsmanship.
That’s a lot to deal with (and that isn’t everything) and perhaps a bit too much. Nights of Villjamur has a rich potential to it, but it doesn’t quite feel fully there, at least, not consistently so. Mark Charan Newton is juggling so many POVs, so many plot strands, any one or two of which could carry a novel (and a series), that we never feel fully grounded in any of them long enough to feel immersed in story or character, despite the fact that most of the plots wind together and most of the individual characterization starts out strong.
The encroaching ice is a great premise, but we never feel its inevitability, its alien coldness, the fear it must cause among the refugees who have fled its advance or those islanders who have stayed behind. The scavenged alien technology akin to magic is another great premise, we get a few flashes of light, some boxes, a few sentences here and there saying this box does this, this light does that, and that’s mostly it. The banshees and the garudas are great inventions but they don’t linger enough. We’re never quite clear on the Rumels, on how they and humans have come to cohabitate, or even exactly what they look like. Tuya’s ability is used to jumpstart a murder investigation, once more for almost a trivial use, and then mostly dropped. This happens with several other elements — this sense of half-fulfilled promise.
The same holds true with the plot. The murder investigation seems like it would have been an interesting line to wind through the story, but we as readers know almost immediately who the murderer is and Jeryd doesn’t actually do much investigating. The artificial war set in motion is pretty transparent, a bit too flimsily based to completely accept how easy people accede to it, and then its major action happens offstage. The usurpation is bled of much tension by the fact that the perpetrator tells us (via conversation with another character) how he’s going to do it and then, well, does it. The plotline involving Dartun would seem to have some major veins to explore: raising the undead, questions of ethics, a way to show us the world as he journeys to some of its farther edges, a sense of grandness re the portals to another world. But it falls curiously flat. Part of it is that it’s so business-like. Part of it is it happens relatively quickly. Part of it is some nagging questions, such as how can nobody know he’s been around as long as he has and would he really just drop his zombies off like so many pennies he doesn’t want to carry in his pocket so they’d be found by others? And the burgeoning romance between Eir and Randur is just too predictable to add much excitement or tension.
As for the atmosphere, Newton strives to create a sense of the city, and does have some beautiful moments, but the problem is that it often feels like he’s striving to create atmosphere. The characters give us their views of the city, but too many times it feels like words put in their mouth by the author. Which of course they are, so this is a tough criticism to make, but it’s one of those “you know it when it’s done right” kind of things (see Mieville). And Newton’s archipelago never felt fully there (in contrast to Le Guin‘s archipelago).
I liked what Newton was going for here. There are so many good ideas just begging to be fully explored. I wish he’d whittled them down a bit more or saved some for book two. Jeryd and Brynd stand out for their strong characterizations and in them, as well as a few side characters (Jurra and one of Brynd’s captains) you see Newton’s ability to create excellent characters. In the banshees and the garuda you see his imagination. And in the use of ancient technology you see that he can turn up new metal in old veins. All this potential isn’t fully met in Nights of Villjamur, but there was enough that I’ll give book two a shot.
Legends of the Red Sun — (2009-2012) Publisher: Political intrigue and dark violence converge in a superb new action series of enthralling fantasy. An ice age strikes a chain of islands, and thousands come to seek sanctuary at the gates of Villjamur: a city of ancient spires and bridges, a place where banshees wail the deceased, cultists use forgotten technology for their own gain and where, further out, the dead have been seen walking across the tundra.When the Emperor commits suicide, his elder daughter, Rika, is brought home to lead the Jamur Empire, but the sinister Chancellor plans to get rid of her and claim the throne for himself. Meanwhile a senior investigator in the city inquisition must solve the high-profile and savage murder of a city politician, whilst battling evils within his own life, and a handsome and serial womanizer manipulates his way into the imperial residence with a hidden agenda. When reports are received that tens of thousands of citizens are dying in a bizarre genocide on the northern islands of the Empire, members of the elite Night Guard are sent to investigate. It seems that, in this land under a red sun, the long winter is bringing more than just snow.