Nights of Villjamur by Mark Charan Newton
Reviewed by Martin Lewis
04 June 2009
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)
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.