City of Ruin by Mark Charan Newton
|Book Name:||City Of Ruin|
|Author:||Mark Charan Newton|
|Formatt:||Hardcover / Paperback / eBook|
|Release Date:||June 18, 2010|
Often these reviews begin with comparing the writer in question with another; or even to a combination of two or even three writers. The novel features boats, then compare the writer to Stevenson, Forester or O’Brian; epic fantasy, then evoke the name of Tolkien; more in the swords and sorcery vein? Howard or Moorcock. Bit more gritty with the fairly regular killings of beloved characters? George R. R. Martin. And so on. With Mark C. Newton I don’t even know where to begin! Other reviewers have compared him to Gene Wolf or Jack Vance, (two writers of whom I am sadly unfamiliar), but I found his work evocative of so many writers, because effectively Newton’s writing is a melting pot of all the different books, films, myths and legends which he has grown up with. Just a quick list but I found: Winged Monkeys (Wonderful Wizard of Oz), a floating city (Laputa in Gulliver’s Travels), a multiverse of interconnected worlds (take your pick from Michael Moorcock novels to Neal Stephenson’s Anathem) Gardudas (bird men with wings and an eagles’ beaks from Hindu mythology), a spider woman (a variation on Anansi from Caribbean folklore), gangs of vampyrs (from Dracula to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and even Twilight) and another reader would pick up on others that they would recognize from their own wider reading or childhood mythology.
If it is tough to pin down Newton’s literary mentors, it’s harder still to define the story as one particular genre. The easy option would be to classify him as ‘Weird Fantasy’, but that seems an incredibly lazy choice to me, as well as doing him a disservice as a writer. Just like how Newton blends together a range of literary influences, the novel also blends together a range of genres. Inquisitor Jeryd belongs to a film noir – a hard working, honest detective patrolling the streets and attempting to unravel the dark and disturbing mysteries of the city that he has chosen to protect. Commander Brynd is the decent and brave leader of war movies – the one the other men look up to, and always has a plan. Finally the third of our heroes that have been carried over from Nights of Villjamur is Randur, a dashing Errol Flynn style hero from the swashbuckler film matinees of our grandparents’ times.
So what does this melting pot of influences and genres achieve? Well it allows Newton to not only craft an imaginative and unpredictable tale so unlike anything else currently in the fantasy genre (see Marc Aplin’s earlier review of Nights of Villjamur), but to also cover a range of issues. Just like an episode of Grange Hill or the Sunday Hollyoaks omnibus, Newton is not just content with entertaining us, he wishes to make us think about the big social issues of today. “Oh no!” I hear you scream. Well it is done a bit more subtlety than in those aforementioned examples, and using fantasy as a vehicle for discussing real world issues is not exactly new; C. S. Lewis after all has taught generation after generation about Christianity, and Tolkien had us all yearning for a pre industrialized Britain, though admittedly some might find Newton a little preachy. The issues are fairly easy to pick out – climate change, homophobia, racism, sexual equality, corruption, crime, social unrest, poverty – and are dealt with two different degrees of success.
The character of Malum is our figure for exploring organized crime, homophobia and social unrest. He is a leader of a gang of vampyrs – a figure it turns out much like Alan Moore’s take on the Joker, an extreme trauma caused by poverty and social has made him into a homophobic sadistic sociopath. For me, though Malum is not a fully drawn character like the Joker of Alan Moore, but instead is just a heavy handed cipher created by Newton to make the point that a broken society creates monsters like Malum. He is simply not memorable enough and his thought patterns and speech are clichéd enough to be from a second rate British police drama: “So yeah, maybe he should teach that commander a lesson, to show him what a real man was like.”
Newton’s strength though is writing characters from the marginalized groups. Commander Brynd is one of the best realized characters I have read for a long time in fantasy. He is an outsider twice over, firstly as an albino, secondly as a homosexual. Newton does not let either label define Brynd though – this is a fully realized character on his own terms – a dynamic, intelligent, courageous leader though plagued with the self doubts of all great leaders. And even more fantastic (and sadly far too rare in this male centric genre) is some absolutely fantastic female characters. Take a bow Bellis, Beami, Nanzi, Marysa and Artemisia. None of these are the sadly far too regular victim or princess waiting to be rescued that we still find in fantasy books being published even now, but are all interesting female characters that challenge the traditional female roles. (And all more than capable of dishing out a can of whoop ass to some of their male counterparts.)
Whilst I might have been dissatisfied with Malum as a villain, Voland and his assistant are two of the most interesting villains I have read about in a long while. There are points in the novel where you will find yourself questioning whether their actions are in effect actually villainous at all, and both are certainly the products of some quite feverish nightmares from our intrepid young writer.
Overall, I loved City of Ruin, but will accept that it is not for all. Fantasy fans who enjoy the more traditional Tolkienesque fantasies might balk at the imaginative leaps and bounds that Newton takes his readers on. And non liberal readers of fantasy books might be uncomfortable with some of the themes in Newton’s writing – plus some fantasy readers (especially those still angry at C. S. Lewis for trying to convert them to Christianity) might resent being made to grapple with big issues full stop – and it gets dark, very dark. Just like that bastard, George R. R. Martin, Newton cannot be trusted with the well-being of these beloved characters he has created, and I will warn you now, the death toll is in the thousands, hundreds of thousand actually. City of Ruin though shows a young writer pushing the boundaries of fantasy to almost breaking point, and instead of using it merely as a form of escapism is using it to grapple with some very real and pertinent issues, which affect the world we inhabit.