Up to now, reading Mark Charan Newton’s Legends of the Red Sun series has very much been a look into his evolution as a writer. From his debut, Nights of Villjamur, and continuing through the next two volumes his growth was easily observable, with the third book in the series, The Book of Transformations, being in this reviewer’s mind, the jewel in the crown. With The Broken Isles, Newton brings his thrilling quartet to a close no unsatisfying way, but certainly in a less daring form than we’ve seen him before. This apart, The Broken Isles is still a fine showing of what epic can be when done well. Stirring and socially relevant, it remains a level above the average fantasy lot.
Fresh from a military victory, Commander Brynd Lathrea plans to rebuild the city of Villiren, where he is confronted with a dilemma. There are friendly forces who have no other choice but to live alongside his own people, and their numbers will be required to fight in the looming conflict. The commander turns politician as he seeks to build bridges and embrace mysterious new technologies to further his ambitions. However, many of Viliren are skeptical of aliens coming to their city, tensions are running high, and even the dream of a peaceful future brings with it inevitable clashes of beliefs.Though it only broadly fits in the epic fantasy genre, The Legends of the Red Sun does possess one of its more common traits: it moves around quite a bit. The Broken Isles can be said to return to a familiar setting, but seen in a different light – Villiren, devastated by war, and in the process of reconstruction. Newton waits on no one, and puts his prose into high gear as the tale of the Boreal Archipelago hurtles to its conclusion. Having achieved a major victory in City of Ruin, Brynd realizes he still has the worse to face as the foreign threat remains just so – a major threat.
Meanwhile, across the chain of island, Villjamur has been destroyed. A vast swathe of refuges from the legendary city are now on the run from an immense alien presence in the sky. Villages are being cleared and people are dying en masse. And Inquisitor Fulcrom finds himself at the helm of an operation to aid the refugee exodus to the coast, but it’s a race against time before this threatened genocide is complete.
Ancient civilizations line up on the field of battle. Exotic creatures and a possible gold walk alongside citizens of the Empire. As the Legends of the Red Sun series draws to a close, there will be one final immense conflict to decided the fate of multiple cultures forever.
This deep into the story, Newton still has the courage to introduce a few new characters, most notably the youthful but entrepreneurial Jeza and her merry band of companion-inventors. Even as complex and endearing as Newton has nurtured the returning characters to be, the new faces lend a welcome freshness to the novel. But they’re not just there for the ‘new’ factor – they actually have significant roles in the story (not least of which is providing Newton with a method of including the Mourning Wasp in the book; a challenge from fellow Tor-writer China Miéville, as he explains in the acknowledgements).
It’s a testament to Newton’s skill and intrepidness that in The Broken Isles can simultaneously coexist a homosexual-albino military leader and transgender former-superhero without it seeming like anything out of the ordinary. They blend in with the rest of the world created by Newton, their particularities almost entirely forgotten. I would almost myself have forgotten, had their not been little reminders here and there. However they continued to be judged solely on the basis of their humanity. Having dealt with these social issues previously, Newton concentrates this time on more political concerns, in relation to the characters’ vision for their new, future nation. Few have been as forthcoming as Newton with infusing their works of fantasy with such discussions, though he doesn’t go quite as far we’re used to this time around.
Pervading throughout is a sense that Newton was playing things safe, perhaps intimated by the task of reeling back in all the threads he’d unraveled in the previous books (or tired with the material?). This not simply in terms of trying new things, and broaching touchy subjects, but also with the story itself. There are some brilliant attempts at really exciting elements (a certain cannibal comes to mind) which are never fully executed. This includes the final battles. Now, final bloody and immense conflicts are a fixture in epic fantasy, and where Newton has not previously shied away from violence – and doesn’t really do so here – those parts of the novel are sped through. What we do see though, including certain aerial components, are very well-wrought segments of the novel. We can’t really blame The Broken Isles for being an not excellent novel, but more for not being that step above its predecessor quality-wise, in the way Newton had made us familiar to.
Not quite equal to its predecessor perhaps, The Broken Isles yet remains the work of a writer much in control of his art. It says something about Newton that even when he’s not at his best, his books are this good. At the end of the day, he brings it all to a fitting end. There’s a great sense in the final pages of the novel that the major characters have all found emotional closure to their respective arcs – and that’s always a wonderful way to leave beloved characters. Newton assuredly took us on an interesting and, dare I say, innovative journey with The Legends of the Red Sun. With it now sadly behind me, I reckon this is one series which will go down – for those in the know – as one of the really good ones. The Broken Isles is out now from Tor in the UK and Canada. No word yet on a US release.
Mark Charan Newton's Website: http://www.markcnewton.com/
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