Max Frei’s The Stranger is an interesting novel to say the least. For starters, I almost gave up on the book at three different times. Why? Well for one, it took a long while before the book started making sense to me, especially the setting, the story and the novel’s direction. It took even longer for me to get used to The Stranger’s peculiar brand of humor, not to mention the author’s liberal use of exclamation points. And finally, I just wasn’t able to connect with the protagonist Max, which was particularly galling since the entire novel is written from Max’s point-of-view, although I did eventually get over it. In short, I feel The Stranger is not the kind of book that readers will be able to delve into and immediately enjoy. Instead, it will take time to get used to the novel’s many idiosyncrasies, but if readers can accomplish that, then The Stranger will reward you.
To begin with, The Stranger is incredibly imaginative bolstered by an undeniable charm — think Harry Potter meets Dr. Seuss. In fact, I believe the book’s most striking attribute is its creativeness — a creativeness that extends throughout the entire city of Echo and the world beyond and includes all of its inhabitants, traditions (sleeping on floor beds, houses with 5-6 bathrooms is considered the norm, etc.) and more mundane things like the mode of dress, everyday expressions (Sinning Magicians!), transportation (amobilers), narcotics (Soup of Repose), and food (Jubatic Juice, kamra, Eliixer of Kaxar, Chakatta Pie). Other intriguing ideas include Silent Speech, self-inscribing tablets, buriwoks (talking birds with prodigious memories that act as a form of library or computer), their version of a prison, cats raised as livestock, the rituals they follow when another year ends, and the Quarter of Trysts where one-night stands are left to fate. Plus so many other wonderful ideas that it would require me writing a book just to cover them all.
The Stranger‘s second best attribute is the characters, which goes hand-in-hand with the book’s humor. Of the former, every single character that appears in The Stranger — apart from Max — is marked by a delightful name and a distinctive trait, but the most interesting characters by far are Max’s co-workers in the Minor Secret Investigative Force — Sir Juffin Hully, Most Venerable Head; Sir Shurf Lonli-Lokli, Master Who Snuffs Out Unnecessary Lives; Sir Manga Melifaro, Diurnal Representative of the Most Venerable Head; Sir Kofa Yox, Master Eavesdropper; Lady Melamori Blimm, Master of Pursuit of the Fleeing and Hiding; and Sir Lookfi Pence, Master Keeper of Knowledge. What makes these characters so interesting, apart from their charming names and personalities, is their interactions with one another and with Max, which consists of incessant banter and inside jokes like Max pretending to be from the Barren Lands, making fun of the incompetent General Boboota Box, and the differences between our world and theirs:
Well, this is nothing very exciting. Just a female dog. And this … how should I say it, Shurf — a man who is undeserving of respect and who has serious problems with the plumbing in his backside. It’s a word that describes stupid people, although the root is directly connected to the process of reproduction.
Now this expression may be used interchangeably with the straightforward human expression “go away,” but it makes the one on the receiving end doubt his own ability to procreate. And this is a kind of animal, and at the same time a man who is undeserving of respect, and who has problems with his back passage… — Max on explaining a few choice cuss words to Sir Lonli-Lokli.
Once I got used to the book’s particular sense of humor, I had quite a few laughs and was reminded a bit of Mike Resnick’s amusing John Justin Mallory tales. The comedic moments don’t always work though. One reason is because there’s just so much of it that some stuff like the banter and ongoing jokes start wearing thin. Another reason is that some of the jokes just flew over my head, partly because of the author’s Russian roots and partly because of the translation like a few expressions that I didn’t get at all: “I’ll step on the throat of any song.” “A vampire under your blanket.”
As for Max, I’m not sure I’ve ever read a first-person narrative that was so lacking in intimacy. For example, what kind of person was Max before he came to Echo? I mean, we’re told that he was a loser, that he hated his life, slept during the day instead of at night, and was a vivid dreamer, but you never really understand what kind of person Max was, nor how he adapted to life in Echo, and so on. Because of this lack of intimacy, it’s just really hard to connect with Max as our narrator, especially at the beginning of the book when readers are suddenly thrust into the world of Echo with little explanation as to how or why Max got there. Heck, the story of how Max came to Echo isn’t even related until 200 pages in, while certain personality traits like being addicted to cigarettes, being afraid of heights and being a neurotic are just casually thrown into the book at seemingly random points. Fortunately, what Max lacks in intimacy is more than made up by his strong supporting cast and the interesting things that constantly happen to him, like being able to perform incredible feats of magic — a lot of the times without him even knowing about it — possessing amazing luck and intuition that is very helpful with whatever case he’s working on, and his physiognomy undergoing strange changes such as turning into a vampire or acquiring the ability to kill a person with his spit.
Story-wise, The Stranger follows the exploits of Sir Max and the Minor Secret Investigative Force — here I kept thinking of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson — and is divided into seven chapters, each of which focuses on a case and acts as a separate short story, but is connected overall. In “Debut in Echo,” readers are introduced to Max, Echo, Sir Juffin Hully, Sir Melifaro, Sir Lonli-Lokli, and Max’s very first case which involves murder and a haunted mirror. In “Juba Chebobargo and Other Nice Folks,” we meet the rest of the Minor Secret Investigative Force and follow Max on a case that somehow includes a haunted house, a string of unexplained robberies and dolls. In “Cell No. 5-OW-NOX,” Max travels with Sir Lonli-Lokli to the prison Xolomi to solve the mystery of a particular prison cell where prisoners keep dying. In The Stranger, Max must stop a murderer from our world who inadvertently traveled to Echo. In “King Banjee,” it’s nearly the end of the year and Max is handed a strange case of an innkeeper who was transformed into a giant piece of meat. In “Victims of Circumstance,” Max and Lady Melamori find themselves embroiled in a heartbreaking love quandary while solving the case of mind-control belts. Finally, in “Journey to Kettari,” Max is disguised as a woman and travels with Sir Lonli-Lokli to find out what happened to Sir Hully’s home city Kettari.
Max Frei’s The Stranger was a hard novel to get into, and it took a lot of patience and determination on my part to keep reading the book, but I’m very glad that I did so. Because once I got past the confusing beginning, was able to understand the structure of the novel, and became comfortable with The Stranger’s various idiosyncrasies, I couldn’t put the book down. And now that I know what to expect, I can’t wait to return to Echo and read more of Max’s adventures! In the end, in spite of the book’s problems, I can easily see why The Labyrinths of Echo has enjoyed so much praise and success, and I strongly urge anyone who is a fan of imaginative fiction to give Max Frei’s The Stranger a try.
Labyrinths of Echo — (2009-2013) Publisher: The millions-selling fantasy epic of the new Russian literary icon-a freeloading freebooter who finds a new home in a magical world “You never know when you’ll luck out.” Max Frei’s novels have been a literary sensation in Russia since their debut in 1996, and have swept the fantasy world over. Presented here in English for the first time, The Stranger will strike a chord with readers of all stripes. Part fantasy, part horror, part philosophy, part dark comedy, the writing is united by a sharp wit and a web of clues that will open up the imagination of every reader. Max Frei was a twenty-something loser — a big sleeper (that is, during the day; at night he can’t sleep a wink), a hardened smoker, and an uncomplicated glutton and loafer. But then he got lucky. He contacts a parallel world in his dreams, where magic is a daily practice. Once a social outcast, he’s now known in his new world as the “unequalled Sir Max.” He’s a member of the Department of Absolute Order, formed by a species of enchanted secret agents; his job is to solve cases more extravagant and unreal than one could imagine-a journey that will take Max down the winding paths of this strange and unhinged universe.