Sunday, 3 July 2011

"The Book of Transformations" by Mark C. Newton

It is hard to predict how authors such as Mark C. Newton, one of the current inheritors of the New Weird, will handle a multiple volume fantasy series.

For those outside the genre, the fact that such sprawling epics exist, strung out over novels potentially numbering in the double digits, is baffling.  Until that is, I mention their many similarities with television soap-opera.  Then it generally clicks into place.

Characters whose unfolding lives are explored, triumphs and upsets charted, romances kindled, twists and turns detailed, with surprisingly unsurprising predictability, are the stable of both.  In fantasy, there is often the added benefit of world-porn, as secondary creations are detailed in stupefying but loving detail.

This is not, thankfully, the fate of the Legends of The Red Sun.  Instead, we enter the third book in this four book run, firmly inside the skin of what could easily be a stand-alone-novel.  Despite its penultimate feel and its numerical order in the pre-apocolyptic end which must be approaching.

For The Book of Transformations is about ideas.  Mostly those which revolve around heroics.  More so, I would argue, than the lives of the actual heroes.  Not that we don't get a good look at their characters - indeed, there is a large amount of this, considering the book's relatively slim number of pages.  Not for Newton, a cozy travelogue or chapters spent reacquainting us with his far-flung cast of characters from the earlier (and one assumes - later) novels.  We are plunged directly, and perversely it soon transpires, into the action.

And so we open the scene in a Villjamur which feels curiously empty.  Its armies have left, and its competing dynastic head, has fled beyond its reach.  Falling snow from the approaching ice age frame the masses huddled outside its walls, refugees freezing in the Boreal night and shut out of a city which is increasingly buttoned up tight against the advance of both these perceived threats to the ruling order.

Against this backdrop, we're quickly brought spiraling down with a garuda's eye view of our main characters, three heroes who will spark comparisons with many found in traditional four colour comics - with heavy nods to Frank Miller's Dark Knight and Alan Moore's Watchmen.  Empowered individuals who regardless of merit or their lack of, spend most of the novel demonstrating their powerlessness.

For the rest of the book, it is their struggles, of Lan, Tane, and Vuldon, that The Book of Transformations focuses on.  And those of their handler, the rumel Investigator Fulcrom.  And he is indeed, a pivot for the stories of all four.  Together they face the obstacles of their pasts, their powers, and their role as the emperor's visible figureheads in his doomed effort to quell the rising unrest in the city of Villjamur.

Ranged against them, stand the same organizations and individuals who have lifted them up to their current dizzying place of honor atop snowy Balmacara.  Forces which prove more dangerous in the end than the foe they have supposedly been created to combat, the right-on ex-cultist Shalev and her organization of remarkably organized anarchists.  That, and an ominous threat from the far north, heading like an unstoppable Juggernaut or a cultist Doctor Doom for the city.  Their only ally a chattering renegade monk with a book.

But action here, is not the order of the day.  There is a sly hint of this, in the epigram by Proudhon: "When deeds speak, words are nothing."  (And yes, the same Proudhon who coined the phrase "property is theft.")  Talk, communication, and more talking, is where this book is most firmly grounded.  When meeting Mark C. Newton in person, he admits he "loves to tell."  And telling is what The Book of Transformations is all about.

Characters tell their stories, villains their motivations (where they know themselves, and speculate where they do not).  The main actors chat up each other and keep a steady flurry of talk going no matter how improbable the situation, a clear nod perhaps to the tradition of both these impulses in comics.  Talking to themselves, even, in the absence of someone else to confide in.  The masses are no longer silent, either, and even the dead are given voices.

Not to make this propensity for endless chatter sound like a flaw, because it seems clear that this is an obvious choice on the author's part.  Not just the reversal of that first opening quotation, humorously put on its head, but a reversal of the book's opening, and arguably, most thrillingly written first chapter.  Here actions do the speaking, and eloquently so.  The initial salvo in the war between order and anarchy, is smoothly choreographed, and was I thought, one of the finest set-pieces, and pieces of writing, in the whole book.

But it proves deceptive.  A cold weather mirage, a false aurora borealis shining over Villjamur, signifying nothing but sound and fury, hollow as the marker of the faith it destroys; only meaningful in the long run, as foreshadowing of the city's fate at the end of the book.  And whose destruction rains down from an enemy with which there is no dialogue at all, only futile motions which fall short, only terrible, monstrous acts.

It tell us, among many things, that men and women of action shall suffer the same ending, and be buried together in the rubble.  Only the stories of the event, the talking and the telling, will survive and be carried forth.  Even the deus ex machina which is eventually evoked, is literally here, a deus ex liber.

There is really, far too much here for Newton to do justice in so few pages.  So we are often pulled along at a furious pace.  Especially an intriguing, early interlude with one of the protagonists on the cultist island of Ysla.  Here we get a glimpse of a hidden social and technological utopia.  It is also distinctly creepy, cementing a sense of unease that is shared not just by the visitor but the reader as well.  And which is bumped back into our consciousness by several later comparisons with the efforts of both the Villjamur Knights and the Caveside anarchists, to forge a better world out of the unyielding material of the city.

In the end, all these frantic efforts come to naught.  Not one of the heroes or for that matter, any others among the powerful, see their plans turn out as expected, unless it is among those mute forces whose motivations we can only guess at.  In the end, only the voices of those who escape the ruins of the fallen city can tell us that they have grasped anything.  Even if that something is only each other, and the stories like seeds which they carry, about those who have been left behind.

This is some very clever writing by an author who seems confident, playful even, in the midst of what could have been a white-out of ideas.  It also marks some deft handling of gender - and transgenderism appropriately enough considering the eponymous Transformations in the title.  All the more so, as despite the transgendered Lan being the most sympathetic of the heroes, this transformation proves to be no more central to the story than any other - and less important than some.

On that front, Shalev is another intriguing character, who has very little to say, and much to do, and whose transformative arc ends in tragedy and in a sense, victory snatched from defeat by the power of another lesser character's efforts to correct her story.  Full circle again, from those who deal out action and violence, coming to no good ends.

Undoubtedly, much more could be said about the book and in praise of the series, but like the author, I've chosen to focus on a more self-contained theme.  Leaving it up to the many other readers and reviewers, to add their own telling, their own voices, to my own.  But I'll be looking forward to the next installment even if any attempt to predict the direction it will take or the outcome it will arrive at, is only the wildest of speculative leaps.


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