Nights of Villjamur by Mark Charan Newton

Reviewed by Martin Lewis

Nights of Villjamur cover

Mark Charan Newton is clearly a writer who is still finding his voice. This is a fairly mealy-mouthed criticism but Nights of Villjamur is a fairly mush-mouthed novel. After a small press debut, The Reef (2008), Newton now joins China Mieville, Hal Duncan and Alan Campbell at Pan Macmillan/Tor UK. It is fine company to be in, the vanguard of British fantasy: urban (although not "urban" fantasy), flavoured with science fiction, horror and the weird, not scared of the odd literary flourish. The comparison is not flattering though. Newton obviously sees Mieville as a major role model, but I was reminded instead of Duncan, if only because of the stark contrast in their writing styles. Whatever else you might say about Duncan—and I have a thing or two to say about Vellum—you would never accuse his prose of lacking an identifiable personality, indeed the manic and instantly recognisable gush of it can be overwhelming. Newton has the opposite problem. His prose has no personality of its own and is consistantly underwhelming, with the result that his world lacks colour and clarity.

Villjamur is the seat of an archipelago empire. It is a fastness against the encroaching snow of a miniature Ice Age, and its walls are already girded by an army of refugees seeking sanctuary. It is a city of bridges and spires, home to humans and rumel, banshees and garuda (those last imported directly from Mieville's New Crobuzon). It is a city with thousands of years of history, and yet somehow it never comes to life. Fantasy, more than any other genre, thrives on colour, but vibrancy is sadly lacking here. There are odd flashes, of course:

The streets were filled with priests from the outlying tribes, allowed in on a one-day permit, but watched closely by soldiers from the Regiment of Foot. Sulists gathered around their shell reading priests. Noonists were standing semi-naked in a circle, smeared in fish oils, holding hands and singing a melisma while a bunch of city cats tried to lick the oil off their hands. Ovinists were holding up pigs' hearts, as was their custom, allowing the blood to drip from them slowly into their mouths. (p. 48)

Such passages are few and far between, though, and Villjamur is not conjured into our hearts and minds. Rare is the moment when you think you can smell the streets. Newton concentrates on a thin stratum of middle-class cafes and bars, but even this is rather perfunctory. The upper and lower classes are painted with even broader strokes. The city should be packed, tense, and heaving, but it feels curiously empty and the raw mass of humanity is largely absent. It is noticeable that the refugee camp outside the city walls is barely glimpsed, despite playing a significant part in the plot. This lack of attention is a recurring theme of the novel.

About halfway through Nights of Villjamur I happened to read Christopher Tayler's review of A Day And A Night And A Day by Glen Duncan in The Guardian. Surprisingly, it seems the two novels share a common and unlikely problem: Don DeLillo. Newton's novel opens with an epigraph from DeLillo's post-modern classic, White Noise (1985). It is a reference that promises much and delivers little (and it is noticeable that the quote itself is one of the least recognisably DeLillo you could find in the book). In his review Tayler points out the perils of a lesser writer imitating a master:

His writing aims for hardboiled terseness mixed with figurative density, sometimes leading to extravagant word-choices ("the crenulations of his brain"; "our thanatotic glands are juicing"). He often leaves out indefinite articles ("a bony white girl with small face"; "an American with jewelish green eye") or uses words in unconventional forms (Selina has "long legs and natural blond"). As a result, his poeticisms—"The fit of a gun's grip in your hand is of the deep geometry," for example—are sometimes hard to disentangle from the copy-editing errors.

He could be talking about Newton. Sometimes Newton makes extravagant word choices (we have "violently febrile," "glossy beetles began to pullulate around the victim's gaping wounds," and "stumbled through the aphotic Fagus forest" within a couple of pages near the beginning); more often he employs a Northern English dialect to lend that terseness. It is a decision that on the page often seems self-conscious rather than lending the appropriate air of weariness and worldliness to his writing. Sentence construction often seems to wriggle away from him as well:

He certainly did not need the eyes of common tradesmen, dockers, and farm labourers to be the first of her subjects to set eyes upon the new Empress. (p. 114)

Or later:

Todi was young, blond and eager, offering a keenness that meant he was trustworthy. (p. 311)

This is the final wording. "Offering" is clumsy enough, but in the Advance Reader Copy I received the word used is "racheting", which is just nonsensical. In fact, the proof of Nights of Villjamur is the possibly the most error riddled I've ever seen, with numerous poor choices of this kind, and more substantial structural errors, in addition to basic typos. The text just does not hang together very well. You can see when the author is trying and when he is just being functional but often when he tries, he fails, and often when he is functional, he is just plain bad. God knows there are worse prose stylists out there, but usually they are bad because they have limited horizons. This is not the case with Newton. Instead the variance and dissonance of his narrative voice makes reading it similar to listening to the swinging register of a boy going through puberty, and I can only hope that it settles down, matures, and rounds out in a couple of years.

Unfortunately it is not just the way Newton says things but what he says. As I've said, he never really immerses us in his world: his unnecessary prologue offers no hook and unwisely separates us from the city at the heart of the empire and the novel. We then move forward several years and arrive in Villjamur just in time for the Emperor to commit suicide. A headless state threatened from without, not just by the coming freeze but by reports of strange creatures, tribal raids, and genocide in the outer islands offers a potent opportunity for political intrigue and unrest. Unfortunately, the story opens out to encompass myriad viewpoint characters, most of whom should not have been allowed this privilege, and continues along the diffuse, meandering path hinted at by the prologue. Throughout the book I often found myself wishing Newton had concentrated on just two: Inquisitor Jeryd and Commander Brynd Lathraea. Jeryd is investigating the murder of several prominent councillors and it is through this thread that the internal threats to the empire are exposed. Conversely, Lathraea is roving the islands investigating external threats. This covers the majority of what actually happens in Night Of Villjamur and would have been ample for the first novel in a series. Instead, we are repeatedly distracted or, worse, threads are deliberately put on hold.

Ludicrously, Jeryd ignores his only clue to the murders (a splash of blue paint at both scenes) on the grounds that the connection (the last person to see the first councillor alive was a prostitute with a fondness for painting) is too obvious. Policemen are, of course, well known for their aversion to the obvious. No, the only reason for this to happen is so that this thread of the book is not resolved before the others, the obvious can be delayed and his aide, Tryst, can betray him at a suitably dramatic time. Tryst's motivation? He hates his boss for passing him over for promotion, despite the fact it is a centuries old tradition that only rumel can be inquisitors due to their longer lifespan, a tradition he must have been well aware of. Oh, and he also happens to be a member of a secret cult that has infiltrated seemingly every single facet of the imperial bureaucracy.

This bureaucracy seems rather small to support the mighty empire of Jamur. For example, Lathraea wears several hats, not only as commander of the Night Guard—who are not only the imperial guard within the city, but magically-enhanced special forces troops for deployment across the empire—but also as the head of all the armed forces. This unlikely combined role of bodyguard, commando, and general only reinforces the under-populated feel of the city; he really is the only man for the job. There is no sense that the characters are part of a wider world, rather they seem to represent it in its entirety.

Far worse is on display in the other plot threads. Chief offender is the one concerning Randur Estevu, a youth from an island famed for its dancers and where dancing is both a martial and sexual art, who has arrived to tutor the emperor's younger daughter, Eir. It is a sensible and traditional choice to make a stranger to Villjamur the first viewpoint character, but not only does Randur fail to capture the city, he singularly fails to live up to this interesting back story. In an extremely unlikely development that is poorly set up by the prologue, a cultist (a sort of magician-engineer) offers to extend his dying mother's life in return for an astronomical sum. He duly procures this by fucking and robbing his way through the widows of the upper city whilst at the same time capturing the heart of his feisty charge. It is hard to overstate how hackneyed and clichéd this all is (at one point he does actually have to jump out of a lady's boudoir to avoid detection). Things get even worse when he starts to fence his stolen goods in a pantomime rough boozer in the bad part of town where the landlord turns out to have a heart of gold and two angelic little nieces. I won't go into the specifics but this relationship climaxes with them leading a band of vagabond heroes against the city guard to save Eir from a frankly mad conspiracy through violent revolution. It is jaw-droppingly stupid; the intrusion of a 1930s swashbuckler into a novel that repeatedly pays lip service to political discussion whilst utterly failing to substantively engage. I have in the past been heard to complain that the ratio of politics to adventure in Mieville's Iron Council (2004) is too skewed toward the former, but the seriousness of engagement in that book is a welcome contrast to Newton's cartoonish treatment of class.

All this leaves Nights of Villjamur a very odd novel indeed. It lacks the confidence that made recent debuts by contemporaries like Duncan, Campbell and Scott Lynch come alive—and this is actually Newton's second novel. It isn't just the quality of the execution; the dissonance between the writers Newton is explicitly invoking (writers like DeLillo, Mieville and Gene Wolfe) and the work he is actually producing is hard for the reader to get past. He seems to be writing a fundamentally different type of work: this is an unremarkable, middle of the road fantasy that doesn't really attempt to be anything more. Partly this comes back to confidence, but I suspect (hope) a lot of it is due to pace of production; the book shows every sign of being written in a rush, not just from the state of the proof (at one point a viewpoint has been changed from third- to first-person without all the pronouns being fixed) but from the obvious lack of interest and care taken in certain passages. Whatever the reason, for the moment Newton is the poor relation amongst his peer group at Pan Macmillan.

Comments

Posted by Alan at June 4, 2009 10:00 AM:

I was left, by this poorly written review, wondering if you've ever read much fantasy at all. This prose is some of the best genre writing in years, far more controlled than his peers. I've noticed you like few if any books you review, which is fine, but I think you missed many literary points and references. Villjamur was stunning, a dreamy place, and the plotting might have been too complex for you, but this makes for the strongest and most literary of epic fantasies I've read in years.

Posted by Dave F at June 4, 2009 11:00 AM:

Incidentally garudas are mythological creatures, and sourced well in Borges' Book of Imaginary Beings. This might be where Mieville's were taken too. Oh and I couldn't disagree more! This is a classy novel; best of the year so far.

Posted by Martin at June 4, 2009 11:16 AM:

I was aware of garudas from Hindu mythology but not Borges. The garudas here are very much like Mieville's and not much like the Hindu ones so I thought it was a deliberate attempt to establish them as a "class" of creature in modern fantasy. I thought this was a worthy aim and worth remarking on, particular in the context of Mieville's obvious influence. However, if they are in Borges as well perhaps the origin of this more modern incarnation is deeper than I knew.

Posted by Dave F at June 4, 2009 12:43 PM:

From what I can gather in the text, Villjamur's Garudas are almost exactly as Borges described, which are the best the west has to compare to. Much more so than Mieville's, I would say. (Mieville, incidentlly, quotes this bestiary at the beginning of the Tain novella, in which he describes another of Borges' creatures.)

Back to NOV, there are quite a few things which are also to be found in other mythologies throughout the book, as well as at least two references to Gene Wolfe, and another to Viriconium. I'm sensing other references in there too, but I'm surprised you never saw fit to comment on them.

Posted by David F at June 4, 2009 1:07 PM:

Also to add, I do find it rather amateurish and cry-baby when you say on your own blog that, pretty much, anyone who disagrees with your review (which is badly written and more about your voice than dealing with the text) automatically thinks SH hates epic fantasy. We're out of the playground now. Yours is the only opinion to dislike this book: I've seen dozens praising it. And you're entitled to your opinion; but sometimes the reviewer's ego gets in the way. This, I suspect, is such a case. However, I'm sure an egoist such as yourself loves the controversy.

Posted by Jonathan M at June 4, 2009 1:28 PM:

What controversy?

"Reviewer doesn't like books other people like" is hardly national news.

Posted by Abigail at June 4, 2009 1:45 PM:

David:

Martin was referring to (and indeed linked to) this blog post in which a commenter did in fact say that "pure genre books tend to have very poorly done reviews on SH." Martin never equated disagreeing with a particular review with holding this opinion, but rather said (I'm paraphrasing) that this review might be taken as corroborating evidence for those who hold such an opinion. You are twisting his words, and what's more, doing so without linking back to them and allowing those who see your accusation to reach their own conclusion.

Posted by James at June 4, 2009 1:53 PM:

I have to take issue with some of the points raised in this review.

"His prose has no personality of its own and is consistantly underwhelming" - I find this a stunning statement from someone who is meant to be well-read in the fantasy genre.

Newton writes with a lyrical flourish, his liquid prose tinged with noir. In a genre bursting at the seams with books characterised by turgid, dull prose, Nights of Villjamur stands out. How that can be lacking in character, I don't know.

"It is a city of bridges and spires, home to humans and rumel, banshees and garuda (those last imported directly from Mieville's New Crobuzon)" - this is such a redundant comment. So Newton borrowed a creature from Mieville (which wasn't even Mieville's creation). So what? Every fantasy novel (or novel in any other genre) contains elements that appeared elsewhere, it's perfectly normal. You might as well have a go at Terry Brooks for writing about elves the same way Tolkien did.

"In fact, the proof of Nights of Villjamur is the possibly the most error riddled I've ever seen, with numerous poor choices of this kind, and more substantial structural errors, in addition to basic typos" - again, so what? Proofs are usually rough around the edges. This one more so than others, I agree, but it's hardly unreadable is it? Which is the impression you seem to be giving here. Readers are not interested in you whinging about the proof, they want to know about the book itself - they won't be reading the proof, so analysing its quality is pointless.

"This is an unremarkable, middle of the road fantasy that doesn't really attempt to be anything more" - another statement that causes me to question how much fantasy you've read. Unremarkable? How many other recent epic fantasies are set in a dying-earth ,millieu? How many other fantasy novels focus on humanitarian issues and the dangers of right-wing politics?

Seriously, if Newton is writing middle-of-the-road fantasy, then what the hell is Trudi Canavan writing? Karen Miller? Brent Weeks? Middle-of-the-road fantasy is cushy, blandly-written fare about kings and knights and magic swords. You won't find any of that in Nights of Villjamur.

Look - you're entitled to your opinions, and some of them I actually agree with. But the ones I've commented on above border on being ridiculous. And by the way, a decent review doesn't give any spoilers at all, let alone ones as significant as yours - are you trying to ruin the novel for people who haven't read it yet?

Posted by Dave F at June 4, 2009 3:32 PM:

Subtext, Abigail. Surely someone as erudite as your good self would recognize that.

Controversy: come on Jonathan - use a dictionary to find the real meaning of the word, not the one you might think it means.

Posted by Martin at June 4, 2009 3:32 PM:

I tend to the view that if a book can be spoiled by details of its plot being revealed then it probably isn't a very good book. I do reveal things about the plot but I am speaking in generalities and I would be sorry if the review spoiled the book for anyone. At the same time I believe an excessive aversion to spoilers - which is particularly seen in the speculative fiction community - is damaging to critical writing.

Your main argument seems to be that lots of fantasy novels are very, very bad. That is true enough but it doesn't mean that a novel that is better than them is necessarily good. To me Nights Of Villjamur is pretty much "blandly-written fare about kings and knights and magic swords". As I say in my review I don't think it really engages with the social and political issues you mention.

I guess this all comes down to personal taste - likewise the merits of the prose - but in terms of your more specific complaints:

1) As I said above, the mention of the garuda is not a criticism. It is, as you say, like Brooks taking elves from Tolkien but I don't see either of these as redundant observations. It will be interesting to see whether in, say, ten years garudas have similarly established themselves as a fantasy staple.

2) I think the quality of the proof is worth remarking on because a) it did actually affect my ability to make an accurate judgement on the text and b) it seems indicative of the way the book has been production. A proof does not exist independently of the original manuscript and the final product.

Posted by Larry at June 4, 2009 11:32 PM:

Interesting review, Martin. While I liked this book a bit more than you did (and I'll try to have a review written for it by Sunday, but no firm promises), your first sentence jibes very well with my initial reaction; the influences were a bit bit overwhelming at times, leaving the prose seeming like a pale xerox in comparison. Surprised, though, that there wasn't much on Harrison's influence, as I thought of the Viriconium books before I thought of Miéville's Bas-Lag.

Will say more later; the reactions certainly have been something else.

Posted by Adam Whitehead at June 5, 2009 12:35 PM:

Interesting.

I found this to be a rich, stylish debut with interesting prose, political musings and internal musings/dialogue which did not detract from the pace of events. Whilst it can be argued he does fail in his ambition to be ranked alongside Mieville and Bakker among recent-ish fantasy debuts which aim higher than the standard epic fantasy template, it is not a total disaster of a novel by any means.

The secondary world fantasy subgenre does need to be shaken up a bit more and maybe Newton's changes to the formula are cosmetic at best, but this does not automatically make it a bad book. The tone from this review is one of the reviewer condemning the book for not being what he wants it to be, rather than what it is.

Posted by Liviu at June 5, 2009 6:06 PM:

As the blog poster about SH reviews quoted above I would like to say that while I strongly disagree with this review and maybe we read somewhat different texts since mine was a fairly final version as my comparing to the published hardcover shows, while I heard from others that indeed the original arcs were much poorer, I have to say that this review at least tries to do the novel justice and does not start with the "low grade, peddled" and other condescending stuff that I so hate seeing in a review opening

This being said I am again wondering why you still read/review epic fantasy when it's obviously not your cup of tea. James above put things well in context and though we disagree on the merits of Weeks for example, we both seem to love at least some works of the genre.

Epic fantasy IS "knight and castles" and all of that

Posted by Sally at June 5, 2009 8:18 PM:

"The tone from this review is one of the reviewer condemning the book for not being what he wants it to be, rather than what it is."

Well that's because Martin is known (I'd say well-known, but he's a nobody) for not liking books - he writes reviews as if he would have written the book in a certain way. His tone does reek of teenage boys, so I wonder how old he is?

Maybe he's a wannabe writer himself. I think so.

Posted by Adam Whitehead at June 6, 2009 6:57 PM:

"Epic fantasy IS "knight and castles" and all of that"

I think that is part of it, but epic fantasy doesn't need that. Ironically Nights of Villjamur doesn't seem to have castles (cities and towns, some with fortresses in them, but a distinct lack of the lonely castle sitting by itself on the windswept moor) or indeed knights in the true medieval tradition.

Sally: I don't think that's a helpful comment. Martin has put a lot of thought into the review and it is well-written. My concern was that, as happens from time to time (and I have been as much guilty of this in my own reviews as anyone), the reviewer decides to talk about what he thinks the book should be and not what it is.

Posted by Jeff VanderMeer at June 6, 2009 9:16 PM:

A review containing good analysis and a review being well-written are two different things. I think the review contains good, specific examples to support Martin's viewpoint on the novel's deficiencies. (Although I haven't read it, and am now very interested in doing so.) The writing itself, however, isn't bad or good--it's just there.

The reference to Garuda and Mieville is pretty hilarious and telling. First off, it's clearly meant as a pejorative, so I find Martin's backspinning not only tedious but somewhat cringy. Second, when using a figure in Hinduism is seen as copying from an English fantasy novelist...somebody has lost perspective on the origin of things. I believe I stuck a Garuda into Veniss Underground, written long before Perdido was published. Take me away in handcuffs.

Third, on this: "I tend to the view that if a book can be spoiled by details of its plot being revealed then it probably isn't a very good book. I do reveal things about the plot but I am speaking in generalities and I would be sorry if the review spoiled the book for anyone. At the same time I believe an excessive aversion to spoilers - which is particularly seen in the speculative fiction community - is damaging to critical writing."

Sigh. Thar's a tangled paragraph. So, let's figure a couple of things out here. Are you writing a *review* or a critical essay? If you're writing a review--and although you use both "critical writing" and "review" above, I believe you are in fact writing a review--then spoilers *are* a big deal. If you're not skillful enough to write a substantive review without spoilers, that's on you as a writer. It's not a reflection on the book. Every book just about, good or bad, suffers when a reviewer reveals too much about the plot or character complications.

I would also say that there's not much of this kind of fantasy running around in the wild. That doesn't mean we should be easier on it than other types of fantasy. Just that we should be careful about calling such fantasy unoriginal. A copy of two other copies is still more original than a copy of five hundred other copies.

Posted by Martin at June 7, 2009 12:20 PM:

This review is obviously a review. Equally obviously in my paragraph about spoilers I am speaking both generally (first and third sentence) and about this review in particular (second sentence). This really isn't very tangled.

You assert that spoilers are bad. I assert there aren't any spoilers in this review.

Posted by Sally at June 7, 2009 6:08 PM:

I'd also argue that you can't even make a statement about comparing authors without seeing a body of work, rather than jumping to sound-bite conclusions the way you do. Remember how messy and pulpy Miéville was at the start?

It comes across like a personal attack in your tone, Martin, and Jeff is absolutely correct regarding your errors, spoilers, as well as your backtracking. Your writing is cringy and bitter, to say the very least.

Posted by EdS at June 7, 2009 8:48 PM:

Just finished this book. Although there are many things I could criticize in your review as others have done, your conclusion at the end: "....this is an unremarkable, middle of the road fantasy that doesn't really attempt to be anything more." is right on the money. A very disappointing book since I had expected something better.

Posted by Adam Whitehead at June 8, 2009 1:13 AM:

"'....this is an unremarkable, middle of the road fantasy that doesn't really attempt to be anything more.' is right on the money."

This is actually factually inaccurate. The author has said clearly he was trying to write a Dying Earth-style fantasy (with hints of SF elements as well) with writing and ideas influenced by New Weird authors such as Mieville. So it clearly is attempting to be something more than a MOR fantasy.

Obviously if the author succeeded at that or not will vary by reader. But that statement shows a lack of interest in accuracy and more an attempt to belittle the author's ambition for some reason.

I'm also thinking that some of the critics here don't read a lot of 'MOR fantasy' (which I take to mean authors like Brooks, Feist, Eddings, Lackey etc) and are trying to pin this book into a genre it would sit uncomfortably in. I don't see someone whose favourite author is Terry Brooks or Raymond Feist really 'getting' this book, to be honest.

Posted by Jonathan M at June 8, 2009 10:50 AM:

Adam --

"the reviewer decides to talk about what he thinks the book should be and not what it is"

I'm not sure how else a review can be written.

All reviews judge works by an ideal yardstick. In that sense, all negative reviews are necessarily discussions of how a book should have been a different work to the one it was.


The problem, it seems to me, lies in the phrasing of Martin's conclusion. Read as a whole, the review holds the book up to the yardstick of the New Weird and Urban Fantasy-types like Lynch and finds it wanting. This strikes me as fair practice and, given your comments about the author's intentions, rather insightful.

However, going by Martin's review, it would seem that the author lacks a real understanding of how the works he is trying to copy actually work. e.g., He postures about political engagement but then slaps on the old fantasy staple of 6 feet of steel and a homicidal sense of self-righteousness.

Because of this apparent lack of understanding (according to Martin's argument) the book's underlying forces are not those of the New Weird, but rather those of more traditional fantasy. In other words the book apes the tropes of one sub-genre, while in fact much of the writing resembles that of another sub-genre. I think that's a reasonable conclusion to draw given what Martin has said about the book.

However, to say that the book is only attempting to be a middle of the road fantasy is an unfortunate statement partly because it wades into the murky waters of authorial intent but also because it's not the same point as the conclusion the review actually builds towards.

But I see no reason to look upon that sentence as anything more than mis-judged phrasing. The thrust of Martin's argument seems clear enough to me.

Posted by Alan S at June 8, 2009 12:34 PM:

Jonathan: to build on that point, I've seen in more than one interview that Newton thinks the New Weird is dead, that no publisher in the world is interested in buying such things because they don't sell at all, they never did, and that he wanted to write a traditional fantasy. This was a conscious attempt to veer away from a dead sub-genre. If anything, for me, it seemed to be tapping Vance more than other authors.

But of course, this is the problem with so many people loving this novel, I suspect: it tends to hype it and raise expectations. The old problem. Still, I'm sure the author won't mind such free exposure.

Posted by Jonathan M at June 8, 2009 1:23 PM:

Ah. "I'll write what people want, that way they'll buy it". The clarion call of the truly revolutionary artist.

Posted by Alan S at June 8, 2009 1:47 PM:

Well not necessarily so, I think it's called not being stupid, opening ones eyes, and realising publishing isn't like it used to be. Are you a novelist, Jonathan? There's little point in writing what no one will read. I can appreciate that merely changing the aesthetics does not mean selling out.

You're sounding like an internet troll - was that why you had to close your own blog?

Posted by Adam Whitehead at June 8, 2009 2:11 PM:

"I'm not sure how else a review can be written."

Ah, the old argument that things like authorial intent and market targeting should not be considered by the reviewer. I am not a fan of this idea that you should use the same criteria to judge Gene Wolfe that you use to judge David Eddings (RIP). If an author never intended to write anything more than a popcorn piece of fluff, it seems redundant to wail on it for not addressing Jungian archetypes in a significant manner or not possessing an unreliable narrator. YMMV.

Ironically, of course, Newton was aiming for something higher with this book and if he didn't quite hit it, that's fair game for criticism. Stamping the book into the mud and denying it had that ambition in the first place seemed an overreaction.

As to the other point, I don't think that the New Weird is dead, but there does seem to be a growing idea that the New Weird was nothing original (Harrison had been doing it since the 1970s, Moorcock and Aldiss even earlier than that) and was simply a moment in time when several authors came together to write and release similar stories in a small span of time. This idea that the New Weird was more of a moment in time than a coherent subgenre (a literary equivalent of Britpop) and elements of the New Weird movement have now been picked up and taken into other, more 'mainstream' fantasy works I find interesting.

Posted by Jonathan M at June 8, 2009 3:11 PM:

Alan -- My view is simple : I'm not interested in reading works by people who write purely in order to get published. Trying to work out what publishers are buying and then pandering to that is a recipe for derivative garbage. I'd rather read books by people who are animated by some inner artistic flame. Some need to move things on, some desire to have their say. I don't think careerism makes for particularly good art.

I wouldn't call it 'selling out' either. That implies that you have some kind of counter-cultural authenticity in the first place.

I shut down my blog because I lost interest in writing about genre. I still do from time to time but there's no point in maintaining a genre-related blog if that subject no longer holds your interest.


Adam -- I agree with you that denying that the ambition was present was probably unfair but given that the bulk of Martin's review leads up to the conclusion that the book just failed to reach those New Weird heights, I think that rather than piling on Martin for a stray phrase, it's more helpful to look at the review as a whole and recognise that the phrase was misleading.

I don't think that authorial intent is useful because it means that criticism isn't possible without detailed biographical knowledge of the author. I also see no reason for why the author's choice of terms of engagement should have any primacy over anyone else's (whether that be publisher or public). That kind of approach to criticism also tends to deprive you of good texts. I can think of a number of things that become more interesting works if you completely ignore what it is the author thought they were about.

Having said that, I wasn't necessarily resting my argument on the death of the author. All reviews, regardless of the philosophy behind them, have to judge books against what they should have been. Otherwise all you can ever say about a book is "it is what it is". Besides which, you yourself state (with some authorial support) that this book was aiming for the New Weird. That seems to me exactly the yardstick which Martin used. Yes the review then undermines that by stating a propos nothing that the book was trying to be trad fantasy, but I think that's one poorly phrased sentence in the context of a piece that points in a completely different direction.

Posted by Alan S at June 8, 2009 3:33 PM:

Jonathan: you are displaying to everyone your incredible lack of intelligence here. Writers want to be read by people and major publishers want to sell books. Shock horror. You seem locked in some dreamy idyll in your head; this is a spectacular ignorance of how literature today works.

Posted by Jonathan M at June 8, 2009 3:41 PM:

Alan, I have not insulted you in any way. I have merely expressed an opinion you disagree with. If you can't engage in a civilised discussion without childishly calling me stupid, ignorant and a troll then I really suggest that you withdraw.

Posted by Martin at June 8, 2009 4:10 PM:

In terms of that "mis-judged phrasing" at the end:

I agree with you that denying that the ambition was present was probably unfair

I was trying to draw a distinction between two types of ambition here: the ambition shown on the author's blog, in interviews, etc and the ambition shown in the writing itself. As I saw it Newton was saying one thing whilst doing something else: Nights Of Villjamur is a lot more kitchen boys and palace intrigue traditional fantasy than I could have imagined. So the problem was not only that I found the novel wanting against a yardstick, it was also that I didn't find Newton actually commited to achieving this yardstick. Now, this is perhaps delving too much into authorial psychoanalysis but that was the distinction I was seeking to make.

Posted by Jonathan M at June 8, 2009 4:28 PM:

Martin,

If Alan and Adam are correct about Newton's professed ambitions for the book (on the one hand wanting to emulate the New Weird whilst also trying to produce something more commercial than the New Weird) then I think that the conclusion you put forward in your last comment seems a reasonable one. Newton himself might have been conflicted resulting in a book that's a bit like something Mieville might do but which is ultimately a lot more traditional.

I think that that's a reasonable thing for any reviewer to say about a book.

It's also an excellent reason for why authorial death is a good working assumption for any piece of criticism : sometimes authors are wholly conflicted about their own works and so can't be trusted to pick the correct terms of engagement.

Posted by Tim at June 8, 2009 7:21 PM:

Jonathan: Alan's comments are totally fair. You are being naive, and if you can't stand that then don't come online. You're known for such behaviour yourself.

Posted by Liviu at June 8, 2009 9:36 PM:

And we come back to what are reviews for and what is a review vs what is a more critical (as in literary criticism) approach.

I think that a critical review of a book (in the literary sense) needs at least two perquisites that are missing here: a final copy and some time to digest said book, say a year at least; I change my opinions about books as time passes quite a lot, sometimes after a little while, sometimes after years pass, and of course there are tons of books I tend to read and forget.

And I think that in a way that's the major problem of the review here and why it rubbed so many of us the wrong way - rushed for a piece of criticism, but muddled for a more "do I recommend this book or not?"

Posted by Liviu at June 8, 2009 9:42 PM:

And apologizing for the double comment (the usual hit post instead of preview), I have to say that I find Jonathan a great asset to the online sff community however much I may disagree sometimes with his stance.

When live, SFDiplomat was one of the few places I would check regularly and the Blasphemous Geometries columns in Futurismic are now favorite pieces of mine

Posted by Jonathan M at June 9, 2009 12:47 AM:

Agreed that this business with the ARC is rather puzzling. Yes there are caveats printed on the ARC and yes there are commercial pressures to a) get the review copies out as quickly as possible while b) getting the book ready to sell as quickly as possible but I think that publishers take their chances when they do stuff like that. Particularly in a book where the quality of the prose (or lack thereof) is quite important.

I must admit, it would never occur to me to double check that kind of thing and I think it's to Martin's (and Niall's?) credit that exact wording was checked.


As for letting the book sink in over a longer period of time, well that is one reason why people tend to talk about a distinction between reviewing and criticism. Criticism tends to appear a little while later and allows for a more reflective and selective engagement.


Thank you for your praise though Liviu :-) It's very kind of you.

Posted by Terry at June 9, 2009 3:41 AM:

Jonathan, I agree with Liviu about the benefits of having you around comments, even when I don't agree with you.

I disagree with what appears to be your contention (and I'm not sure my perception of what you're saying hasn't been shaded by other posts) that good art can't be created in an effort to sell. I do think most writers do write to be published, as well. If they can create something new, so much the better! But I don't think too many people write with that in mind, as opposed to wanting to write the very best sellable work they can.

On the other hand, Newton has been quoted elsewhere (http://nextread.co.uk/2009/06/08/interview-mark-charan-newton-%E2%80%93-nights-of-villjamur/) as wanting to avoid writing anything that could be labeled as "New Weird," because publishers are running away from anything that could be so labeled. I think that's a shame, though mostly for selfish reasons; I love anything that has an odor of New Weird, interstitial, slipstream, or otherwise off the beaten path of SFFH.

Posted by Jonathan M at June 9, 2009 10:28 AM:

Hi Terry, and thank you.

It's not really the correct venue for me to hold forth on my utterly unrealistic and grossly unfair beliefs about the role of art but I accept that a) they stem from the fact that I don't want art that merely entertains me and gives me what I know I like and b) they are completely alien to how publishing actually works.

I understand the realities of professional writing and publishing and think that they do a magnificent job upholding Sturgeon's Law :-)


they do not dictate how publishing works. but then I think that this goes some way to explaining why Sturgeon's Law holds firm.

Posted by Abigail at June 9, 2009 10:48 AM:

I'm not sure I follow you, Liviu. What's the difference between a review and a critical review? What Martin's written here is clearly a review, and I'm not sure it would benefit from more distance. In fact, I suspect that the year's gap you're suggesting would hinder any meaningful reviewing - I certainly don't remember sufficient details about the books I read a year ago to write a proper review of any of them.

Which is why I think that one of the important distinctions between reviewing and criticism is that criticism is often about trends and themes in the field in general, rather than a particular work (unless you're talking about a close or specifically oriented reading, which again is something very different to a review). You can write a piece of criticism without getting very deep into any one of the works it references, but a review requires sharper focus, and is best written soon after reading when the details are still fresh in the reviewer's mind.

Posted by Alan S at June 9, 2009 3:03 PM:

Jonathan, I'd be intrigued as to what you think about this comment.

Posted by Niall at June 9, 2009 3:16 PM:

Alan, given that that question is not related to the above review, nor to the discussion of the review, nor even to the discussion about the issues raised by the discussion of the review, I think it might be better taken to email.

Posted by Liviu at June 9, 2009 6:37 PM:

Well, I do not know why this review rubbed me so the wrong way; I did not bat an eye when I read Adam Roberts review of Incandescence which I thought one the most misguided reviews of all times; I was just a bit amazed how such a mismatch between a book and a reviewer can occur in a place like SH though much later I put a comment once I saw the author (G. Egan) slagging the review since now I felt that it is important to note that there are other people feeling like him.

But this review, the more I look through it, the worse it seems in terms of arrogance and condescension and I started feeling that the more uncharitable words directed towards it in various places may be deserved.

So coming back to the question above about the difference between "review", "critical review" and all, maybe when you start slagging a book/author, a cool off period, a re-read of the book and stuff like that would be appropriate to make sure it is not just a heat of the moment, arc typos annoying and all, thingy.

Hey maybe the day you read a book, you have a headache, but you must deliver a review of said book; nothing like that to skew your reading and accentuate the negatives.

If you can not remember the book a year from now or think you won't, maybe again you are the wrong reviewer for it; just a thought...

Posted by Nick at June 9, 2009 10:52 PM:

'It's also an excellent reason for why authorial death is a good working assumption for any piece of criticism : sometimes authors are wholly conflicted about their own works and so can't be trusted to pick the correct terms of engagement.'

The shorthand: the guy who can't write the fiction always knows better than the guy who can. Why isn't such a cod-Barthean pose surprising here? Because it's by Jonathan - it's all about me - McCalmont, that's why! When it comes to spats like this - how many posts has he made on here already? - he's like a fly circling a steaming turd.

Posted by Abigail at June 10, 2009 6:41 AM:

It's my opinion, Liviu, that a good review should deal with details, make specific claims about a work and support them with quotations and examples. If you have sufficient recall to write such a detailed review about a book you read a year ago, having read some 50-60 other books in the interim, not to mention written a dozen other reviews and a hundred blog posts, then I congratulate you, but I suspect you're in the minority there.

Your assertions against this review keep getting worse and worse, and you've yet to support any of them. I see nothing arrogant or condescending about this review, nor do I see Martin slagging off either Newton or his novel - unless you think all negative criticism counts as slagging off.

Posted by Gordon at June 10, 2009 6:47 AM:

Abigail, I'd assert that the whole tone of Martin's writing is wrapped in bitterness, almost envy. One would have to not be good at observing human emotions not to see that.

As for cramming that many books in a year, well - I'm not sure how you could do any of them justice, when you simply belt through them all like that, without at least going through a book twice. Liviu is perfectly right.

Posted by Abigail at June 10, 2009 7:57 AM:

I think you'd be hard pressed to find a single reviewer anywhere who doesn't read at least as many books as that, if not more (I'm actually at the low end of the scale - I read a great deal more before I started working full time). So unless you think there aren't any decent reviewers anywhere, you might want to rethink your assumptions. That goes for observing human emotions as well.

Posted by Ian Sales at June 10, 2009 8:05 AM:

Perhaps those of you who are angry at Martin's review of a book which you loved are chiefly upset at having your own taste in fantasy novels questioned.

Liviu, publishers prefer timely reviews - it helps a book's sales when it is published. Waiting a year before writing a review does them no favours, nor the writers, nor indeed anyone who might want to read the book.

Posted by Alan S at June 10, 2009 2:30 PM:

Ian: I don't think that's the case here. People do not seem upset about having their taste questioned; their issue is with the review itself.

Posted by Liviu at June 10, 2009 3:35 PM:

Quotes from the review:

"mush-mouthed novel, jaw-droppingly stupid, Newton is the poor relation, hard to overstate how hackneyed and cliched"

Could go on, but parsing the review makes it worse and worse.

Compare to the just published review of Steal Across the Sky here and the criticisms leveled to it for the second part, how they come across as firm but polite.

Regarding the timeliness of reviews, we come back to their purpose and from what I understand Strange Horizons is not dedicated to "selling books", is not under obligation to publishers and writes reviews mostly for the lofty purpose of telling us lesser mortals what to think about the sff genre (just kidding about this last one, though it truly comes across like that quite a few times even if unintentionally)

I may be wrong of course and I freely admit that the site I co-edit (FBC) is dedicated to "selling" books, or more precisely matching books with their readers on the famous motto (each reader his/her books, each book its readers), tries to take into account publisher or author desires about the timeliness of review posts though steering clear of closer involvement, and I try to write the reviews I want to read to decide if I want to buy/get/read a book or not.

I have nothing against reviews written for loftier purposes but why do you need to publish them timely on book publication then? I see this as one of the major conflicts here, the stated or implied purpose vs the rush to review and sometimes it just produces a wreck like this review.

This is why I suggested a time-out in some cases.

Posted by Abigail at June 11, 2009 10:45 AM:

Your examples, Liviu, are either benign (mush-mouthed? Seriously?) or taken out of the context (it's the plot that's described as jaw-droppingly stupid), or both. None of them qualify as condescending (to whom, exactly?) or arrogant (not that I'm clear on the meaning of that accusation - would you be calling Martin arrogant if he'd written as passionately in favor of the book as he's written against it?). They certainly aren't slagging off the author, and though I might be willing to concede that Martin is slagging off the book, isn't that simply a more contentious way of saying that this is a strongly negative review? Your comparison with Niall's review of Steal Across the Sky is dishonest, as clearly Niall's reaction to the Kress novel was significantly less negative than Martin's to the Newton.

Posted by Alan at June 11, 2009 12:27 PM:

Come on Abigail, the reviewer clearly has some vendetta here. Either that, or simply doesn't know how to use the right tools for the right book and getting irate - because that's what this car-wreck of a review comes over as.

Posted by Abigail at June 11, 2009 2:12 PM:

the reviewer clearly has some vendetta here

Oh, for crying out loud.

Posted by Bill B. at June 11, 2009 6:07 PM:

bgl - y r th wrst srt f fl; n dt, n fct. Crb yr fl nst cstc mth. f crs rvwrs hv gnds, nd vn vndtts, fr th r nl hmn nd hmns r dts.

Posted by Niall at June 11, 2009 7:42 PM:

Hi. Discuss the book, or the review, please, without insulting other commenters. I've disemvowelled the previous comment because it crossed the line. I've never yet frozen a thread here, but if this sort of behaviour continues, I'll freeze this one.

Posted by Martin Wisse at June 13, 2009 11:09 PM:

The pro-Newton commenters sure do a lot to make me want to read this book. If the quality of his defenders is a yardstick for the quality of his own writing, my namesake's review is vindicated.

The venom raised against this review is gobsmacking. I can understand disliking a negative review of a writer you like, but the trollish behaviour on display here is beyond the pale.

Posted by Jan Vaněk jr. at June 25, 2009 11:27 AM:

Uh, is it just me (who haven't read the book, not even an online excerpt, nor most reviews), or are dying Earth and New Weird (even one that dares not speak the name) rather strange bedfellows? I mean, I always thought (never had the luck to come across the Vance original, except being disappointed by The Eyes of the Overworld, and never got to read The Pastel City) that the definition of dying Earth is... well, y'know, dying, decadent ennui, deserted landscapes with ruins, but on the other hand the essence of NW is bustle of its cities. The elevator pitch (http://nethspace.blogspot.com/2009/06/mark-charan-newton-answers-questions.html ) "Two words: Dying Earth. I mean, come on - how cool is that? Failing that, because it's an epic fantasy with elements of SF, crime, horror." seems self-contradictory to me.

Posted by Matt Denault at June 25, 2009 5:24 PM:

Jan, they're not entirely strange bedfellows. In a Dying Earth setting, the City can become a nexus where the last remnants of numerous different peoples cluster together. Harrison's Viriconium, yes, and also Wolfe's Nessus would be examples. On a surface level these can resemble a New Weird setting with their urban bustle and juxtapositions, although the atmosphere and feelings evoked may be quite different. New Weird cities often evoke a colorful, bursting-at-the-skin state of ripeness, while Dying Earth cities are typically starting to wrinkle and collapse inward.

Posted by E Edwards at December 27, 2009 11:28 PM:

This book was astounding, and I am not in this case attempting to exaggerate, in that I can not recall a more poorly written novel which I have had the misfortune to read, than this example by Mark Newton.

The consistent sheer mismanagement of language, ranging from the clunky, senseless, cliched dialog to the poor to outright bizarre choice of words, falls just shy of coming off as a contrived style of its own. Instead, it is simply painful to read.

The characters are barely two dimensional, gross caricatures of what would be already in the hands of more skilled writer, all too familiar genre archetypes. None come alive nor engender much in the way of sympathy or interest in the reader, no doubt in part due to their thin development and often inconsistent behavior.

As for the plot, the less said the better. Thin and predictable are the first two words that come to mind, followed by many more of a less kind nature after suffering through the slow uncoiling of the turgid storyline from the first page to the bitter end.

I want to contact the author, or TOR at least, and plead that a contractual stipulation be made that Mr. Newton promises to cease and desist from any (shudder) sequels that might be in the works. At least that is, until he can master a remedial grasp of basic writing and take the time to attend a few workshops on the subject. I could go virtually sentence by sentence through this book, and point out the dire mistakes made in nearly every one.

All in all, this has to be one of the most malodorous offerings that I have read, even having come to it with only the most basic of expectations. I truly feel like I have been cheated, considering I paid for a hard copy edition, and more than this, in the value of the time spent reading it which I have so without gain or recompense lost, and shall regain nevermore.

Avoid. And I'd think twice about trying this author again.

Posted by Joshua at January 8, 2010 9:55 AM:

This book was amateurish and should have been embarrassing for the author to have his name attached to it.

I have left the book at home in the States (I live in South Africa) but recall a verbatim quote from the book in which one of the characters, word for word, restates Arthur C. Clarke's maxim (part of his 3 Laws of Prediction) that any "sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Sadly, as I don't have the book in front of me, I cannot pull the page for you although I believe it was in the first 1/3 of the text. This occurs frequently. Does anyone recall his statement that the antagonist Cultist--the one who wants to open that bridge or door to whatever--wears a cloak that is "fuligin--a color darker than black"? Does anyone not recall it as a line from The Book of the New Sun when Severian describes his Order?

Christ people, borrowing in literature is common; direct quotations are not. Get something with a bit more depth to it, originality, and skill. I must 2nd the comment that precedes me: do not buy this book.

Posted by Scots reader at January 13, 2010 6:41 AM:

I've been reading this genre for a decade or two now, and the quality of fantasy novels varies immensely. But Nights of Villjamur, though, this was one of the best pieces of writing in the genre I've come across, definitely up there with Erikson, Abercrombie, and flashes of Miéville, too.

The characters themselves are unique and original - very sublte, and not the charactures you expect of a lot of modern fantasy. The commander and the investigator I felt were particularly well crafted. There is a lot going on beneath the surface.

I noted one of the reviews being rather vicious, which I simply cannot comprehend. Yes the writing is a little adventurous in places, but that's exciting - not the repetitive, bland rubbish one might expect from much of the genre. It moves away from conservatism in the genre. Hints of noir, and with beautifully archaic words dropped in here or there, this is a superb piece of writing, and I can't wait for the sequel.


Martin Lewis lives in East London. His reviews have appeared in venues including Vector, SF Site, and The New York Review of Science Fiction. He blogs at Everything Is Nice.