Mark Charan Newton's Nights of Villjamur (2009) centered on a bizarre city, Villjamur, in a land facing a new ice age. Within the city, corrupt politicians and conspiracies threatened to destabilize the government, while without it strange creatures stalked the land and crustacean invaders stepped from another reality to slaughter thousands. Inspector Jerryd, member of the Inquisition, raced against the clock to stop a string of murders. Military commander Brynd Lathrea, meanwhile, rallied the empire's elite soldiers against the numerous approaching threats.
Villjamur's sequel City of Ruin, in contrast, centers on a bizarre city, Villiren, in a land facing a new ice age. Within the city, corrupt politicians and conspiracies threaten to destabilize the government, while without it strange creatures stalk the land and crustacean invaders step forth from another reality to slaughter thousands. And so on. Basically, the two novels' overall plot is exactly the same.
That being said, City of Ruin isn't so much a retread as a revamp. It reads like what Nights of Villjamur wished it could be. This is Nights of Villjamur on a larger scale, and almost all of the earlier novel's structural problems—oddities of pace, the occasional plotline advancing primarily through character stupidity—are solved here. Newton, however, has always been an ambitious writer. In Nights of Villjamur, the political issues he tried to address were too cursory and too often pushed to the background to have much effect, and the metaphysical hints about his world were intriguing but slight. Here, those concepts come to the fore. Unfortunately, they're where the book stumbles, serving, at times, to undermine large swathes of the plot and characters that are otherwise so well depicted.
Brynd Lathrea is the commander of the Night Guard, the empire's elite fighting force. He's both homosexual and albino, two traits that felt like window dressing in the first book, a potentially interesting aspect of his character that never came into contact with his military life. Here that's anything but the case. While he tries to ensure Villiren's survival against the Empire's multidimensional invaders, Brynd is forced to confront the citizen's reactions to him as both a soldier and a homosexual. The novel's main homophobe is Malum, leader of the large and militant Bloods gang. Malum and his associates are half vampyr, though their condition is used more as a metaphor for alienation and rage than as a plot device. Malum's character is well done, coming off as genuinely menacing, but falls apart when his prejudices come to the fore. His diatribes against homosexuals are too generic to be visceral, too standard and too baldly stated to be effective: "He himself was disgusted that this could occur so high up in the military. It was certainly not what men did, was it, to stick their dicks into other men. . . . Maybe he should teach that commander a lesson, to show him what a real man was like" (p. 158).
Therein lies the problem with almost all of the politics in City of Ruin: Newton never remains neutral. Within sentences of him introducing a situation, the reader will know exactly which side Newton stands on, and the opposition is never convincing. The various issues that Newton raises are successful at gaining the reader's sympathies, but they're far too one sided to be genuinely thought provoking. Furthermore, Newton never lets his ideas stand on his own. Almost every situation is plainly summarized, often in distressingly modern and ill-fitting language, as soon as it's concluded. After Brynd convinces the church to support the war effort in their sermons, for instance, another character is "aghast at this blatant manipulation of the people's spiritual beliefs" (p. 212).
The mystery aspect of Nights of Villjamur was a disaster, a plotline that hinged entirely on one of the characters conveniently forgetting his own conclusions. City of Ruin's mystery functions far better. The basic structure of the arc is almost identical right down to the new aide at Inspector Jerryd's side and Villiren's version of Villjamur's mad forensic doctor. However, the case here actually feels unsolvable due to its scope, not the character's oversights, and the inquisition's administration feels convincingly corrupt, even if its presentation is a tad overdone at points. Jerryd is one of the novel's most sympathetic characters, and the glimpses that we get of his personal life are interesting, particularly when they intersect with the more bizarre aspects of Villiren's social scene.
City of Ruin finds Eir, heir to the empire, Randur, her dance master turned lover, and Rika, now empress, on their way to Villiren after their escape from Villjamur in the first book. Randur's storyline is quite simplistic when compared to the rest of the narrative, albeit a lot of fun—at least until everything in his plotline goes insane. When the adventurers are about to be captured by the military, a seven-foot, black-haired, blue-skinned savior with two gigantic swords falls out of the sky. Artemisia is like a character from a completely different story, flying into Newton's world on a "floating island" (p. 265) called (deus?) "exmachina" (p. 264) and staffed by flying monkeys paid with cigarettes. It's difficult to say if any of this is fascinating or just absurd, though it is clear that the multidimensional quasi-deity is meant to feel as out of place as she does. Once the reader has managed to acclimatize themselves to her presence, Artemisia soon becomes a font of information about the larger world, rapidly invalidating everything the characters have ever thought. Yet none of this new knowledge is acted upon in the story. The whole arc is obviously set up for the third book in the Legends of the Red Sun quartet. All Artemisia does is spend quite a few pages teasing us with new information and slightly cheapen a climax or two.
When the book's disparate elements do get together for the climax, Newton manages to escape most of the novel's problems. The battle for Villiren is massive and engrossing; it's difficult to grasp the overall progress of the two armies, but the inventiveness of what's on display is riveting. Abilities mentioned in the novel's opening are put to the test, ragtag armies of characters are yanked out of their comfort zone to fight over war torn streets, and golems and strange magic contort the field of battle. In the midst of all the chaos, two heretofore background characters step up to create the battle's centerpiece:
It took a while for the pieces to aggregate, but they did, as they always would. . . . Limbs began to coalesce. Arms to feet to flanks of thigh, ribcages woven around organs, fragments of tibia and humerus and femur melding. A slick and glistening thing began to rise up behind the invaders, and glared around with two eyes made form skulls. Its silhouette was that of a single giant, but this was not one creature, it was dozens.
The amalgamated flesh of the dead had become alive once more. (pp. 376-77)
The climax isn't the only part of the book where Newton lets his imagination run wild. Several passages in City of Ruin feel digressive, our viewpoints leaping off, seemingly on a whim, to investigate some other part of the world, but these frequently turn out to be the most memorable parts of the book. When reading them, it's hard to imagine Newton writing with anything less than a face splitting grin.
In his Strange Horizons review of Nights of Villjamur, Martin Lewis said that Newton failed to live up to his influences. Newton's nods here are to authors no less prestigious than in that volume, but those nods are no longer as central. When it comes to the key elements of his story, and to his prose, Newton is his own man, but references abound in the periphery. Some, such as Voland and his black cat (names and, to a small extent, roles that recall Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita), are amusing. At other times, however, Newton's homage can be too direct, pulling the reader out of the story. Both of the most egregious examples come from China Miéville. Towards the end of the novel, several characters engage in a supernatural bug hunt. Earlier, Inspector Jerryd visits a grimy locale reminiscent of Miéville's remade brothels. Neither incident is particularly important or long lasting, but there is certainly a difference between bringing another book to mind and briefly reliving its finer scenes.
Newton's prose, like his plot, functions by knocking standard elements just out of their usual position. He uses simple sentences and easily grasped scenes, but slips in odd synonyms and word choices to keep the reader off balance. The spider in the prologue did not wait or lurk, it "loitered" (p. 1). The man on watch a page later drinks by "necking cheap vodka" (p. 2). Characters read the "entrails of gossip" (p. 422). It's a style that could quickly grow annoying, but Newton is generally able to keep things interesting without becoming distracting. Every once in a while, however, he ends up with a word that simply feels wrong in its context, such as an army of swordsmen and bowmen being said to have "precision weaponry" (p. 199). Furthermore, there's the occasional moment when exposition is shoved in with all the subtly of a speeding train, such as, in the prologue: "At the moment, Haust didn't care if he was a Night Guard, therefore a man with advantageous augmentations" (p. 2). Still, such moments are rare, and Newton's writing remains distinctive but not overpowering.
City of Ruin is not a complete success. There are missteps, and some of them manage to damage the overall experience. There are, also, moments of brilliance. Though they share much of their framework, City of Ruin is a far bolder novel than Nights of Villjamur, and both its highs and the lows are magnified compared to that earlier work. If, in his upcoming The Book of Transformations, Newton can solve the problems displayed here—some disjointed elements and an often heavy hand—it's not hard to imagine him penning the masterpiece he's been aiming for before the conclusion of the Legends of the Red Sun quartet.