Nights of Villjamur, Mark Charan Newton’s debut and the first in the ‘Legends of the Red Sun’ series, was a flawed but tasteful demonstration of Newton’s potential as a writer. With his second novel, City of Ruin, he showed us that he had a lot more to say, expanding the world we discovered in the first book and telling a tale more imaginative, audacious and better crafted than its predecessor. The Book of Transformations is what Newton has to offer next, an even bolder narrative that explores themes not often seem in this type of fantasy. But this is no surprise - assigning his work to any genre or sub-genre has long-since become a futile enterprise. He shows us once more how the rules and expectations of readers can be bent to form a more encompassing, more exciting novel.
A new and corrupt Emperor seeks to rebuild the ancient structures of Villjamur to give the people of the city hope in the face of great upheaval and an oppressing ice age. But when a stranger called Shalev arrives, empowering a militant underground movement, crime a terror becomes rampant.
The Inquisition is always one step behind, and military resources are spread thinly across the Empire. So Emperor Utrica calls upon cultists to help construct a group to eliminate those involved with the uprising, and calm the populace. But there’s more to the Villjamur Knights than just phenomenal skills and abilities - each have a secret that, if expose, could destroy everything they represent.
Investigator Fulcrom of the Villjamur Inquisition is given the unenviable task of managing the Knights, but his own skills are tested when a mysterious priest, who has travelled from beyond the fringes of the Empire, seeks his help. The priest’s existence threatens the church, and his quest promises to unravel the fabric of the world.
And in the distant corner of the Empire, the enigmatic cultist Dartun Sùr steps back into this world, having witnessed horrors beyond this imagination. Broken, altered, he and the remnants of his order are heading back to Villjamur.
And all eyes turn to the Sanctuary City, for Villjamur’s ancient legends are about to be shattered...
Newton has made it clear that his intention is to have all of the novels of the ‘Legends of the Red Sun’ series standalone to a large degree with common characters and storylines to make the books enjoyable to long-term readers and have them tell an overarching story. This was somewhat true of the first two books, but it certainly is of The Book of Transformations. This third entry in the series marks the return to the eclectic setting of the first, the city of Villjamur, which we last saw in the midst of a change in leadership. But Newton makes little or no mention of the first story set in this city we were made privy to, and begins an all new tale.
A lot of fuss was made, pre-publication, over Newton’s choice to feature a transexual character as one of the novel’s leads. That’s really all it was, fuss, as Newton handles the situation with tact and genuine understanding (or near enough as I can tell) of what a person in that situation might feel like. This character, Lan, is joined by two others in being chose by the Emperor himself to become the physically-enhanced Villjamur Knights, protectors of the city and symbols of security for the denizens of the city. Making a return from the first book is the Rumel (read: humanoid with big tail) Inspector Fulcrom.
The Book of Transformations reads as a deceptively more carefree novel than its predecessors. Gone is the decidedly noir atmosphere of Nights of Villjamur or the war-tense aura of City of Ruins. This is, after all, fantasy doing superheroes, and those aren’t particularly known (despite recent fantastically dark and in-depth adaptations on the big screen) for their profundity. But this is also Newton, the man who as mentioned before makes the kind of daring decision of having a transexual protagonist, so you’ll understand that he adds his own twist to these would-be superheroes.
And that twist, quite simply, is to take a look at their humanity. Essentially it’s as if Newton sat us down and told us ‘Look, these are superheroes - physically superhuman people - but they're still people. Let’s look at what makes them tick.’ I can assure you, he does this in a much more subtle, pleasant manner than I just did. Once it’s established that these are flawed human beings that we are dealing with, Newton can immediately delve deeper into their lives and their emotions, making them characters we can better relate to, and their story a more compelling one.
Something that stood out in contrast to my experiences reading Nights of Villjamur of City of Ruin is how much leaner Newton’s prose is. In his debut the writing was clumsier and it was clear that Newton was still - understandably - experimenting with his style. City of Ruin solidified his writing, and as I noted at the time in my review, he showed remarkable growth as a writer. Yet only while reading The Book of Transformations was I confronted for the first time with a writer that appeared to have the full grasp of his craft. Additionally,
The Book of Transformations is imbued with energy that can only come from a writer who is not afraid to let the enthusiasm he holds for his material seep through the page to the reader.
This enthusiasm manifests itself in a number of ways. Firstly, Newton is unforgiving in his inclusion of a bit of levity. Love stories, armed confrontations, magic and the surreal adventures we fantasy fans adore are all present. Secondly, even in this penultimate tome in the series, Newton continues to grow the world of the Boreal Archipelago and its mythology, allowing it to become ever weirder and, yes, ever more epic in scope. Indeed, on top of being intelligent and possessed of admirable depth - I spent a good part of this review discussing - The Book of Transformations is also, at the end of the day, a pace-injected, fun-minded read.
Call me a skeptic, but after the progress Mark Charan Newton had shown in City of Ruin, I was doubtful that we would see another leap forward such as that one in the next book. The Book of Transformations proved me wrong, exhibiting a writer at his best yet, and more importantly, thoroughly enjoying himself. More than that though, The Book of Transformation offered, much like its predecessor, a terrifically bizarre fantasy adventure, utterly unique in its construction. Fans of the first two books will be glad to find a book better than those this third time around. And for those that have yet to jump in to Newton’s rich, weird and thrilling world, there’s no better place than this one to start. This one is, you’ll understand, highly, highly recommended. The Book of Transformations was released a the beginning of June in the UK and will see a US publication in 2012
My Rating: 5 out of 5
Reading Age: 16 and up
Mark Charan Newton's Website: http://www.markcnewton.com
Buy The Book of Transformations:
For those interested, following the release of City of Ruin last year, Mark and I organized an open-forum Q&A with on LBR. You can find the questions that were asked and his responses here.