City of Ruin
Mark C. Newton
Tor UK, 2010
The ice age that loomed over Nights of Villjamur has begun and with it a new, and unprecedented threat has arrived at the empire’s edges. Dispatched to the crumbling city of Villiren Commander Brynd, the albino leader of the elite Night Guard, must unite the Jamur military with the desperate, destitute, and shady citizens of the titular City of Ruins in order to stave off the coming invasion. As if things weren’t bad enough something stalks the people of Villiren and it is up to the hardworking inspector Jerryd, now relocated to Villiren after his unfortunate discoveries in Villjamur, to track down whatever is hiding in the shadows of the disreputable city. Elsewhere Randur, Eir, and Rikka flee the forces of the Empire and run headlong into revelations that will rewrite everything they think they know about their world. Much like the previous book in the Legends of the Red Sun, Nights of Villjamur, City of Ruin is a fascinating mix of fantasy, science fiction, and straight up detective fiction. It is a strange combination that plays both to the novel’s strengths and its weaknesses.
While it has been a while since I read the first book I felt that the various plots in City of Ruin did not quite blend enough to create a single cohesive narrative. As mentioned in the above summary there are three main narratives featuring characters first introduced in Nights of Villjamur. In addition there is an additional narrative thread featuring several new characters: Mallum (a Villiren gang leader), Beami (his cultist wife), and Lupus (a Night Guard soldier who was once her lover). As a result City of Ruin, in a sense at least, shakes fantasy conventions by placing the epic, world-shaking plot on the back-burner and instead focusing on the human element of the story. Thus the majority of the book is given over to the fear laden preparations for battle in Villiren and the search the mysterious killer that stalks the streets. It was this section of the novel, particularly Jerryd’s search and the murderer’s POV that resonated the strongest with me. The sort of romantic triangle with Beami, Mallum, and Lupus allows us to get a better handle on the flavor of Villiren and, through Beami’s cultist technology, expand our knowledge of the world Newton has created.
Of course with the lion’s share of the narrative focusing on what’s going in Villiren that leaves the flight of Randur, Eir, and Rikka a bit out in the cold. My major concern with this part of the novel its place in the greater scheme of the story the novel is trying to tell (i.e. not in the greater overarching plot the series at large); a place that, until the end of the novel, is mostly tangential. It is a concern that is exacerbated by the mix of unanswered questioned and unabashed info-dumping that that occurs during this section of the novel . Yes, I know what you’re thinking, I always complain about the “info-dump” and yes, I never seem able to offer some viable alternative but neither of those facts counter my immediate distaste with pedantic monologues (or dialogues) that occur in these types of scenes. To be fair Newton manages to accompany his info-dumping with a fair amount of showing over telling. This is of course, a good thing but a good thing that only serves to highlight the explanatory conversation that occurs mere moments after we are introduced to a new character in a pretty spectacular way (that would be part of the aforementioned showing). The real problem espoused by this part of the novel is that other than the info-dump this section of novel offers no tangible impact on the rest of the story being told in City of Ruin. That sounds harsh but Newton works hard and successfully at creating an emotional connection between readers and the characters(hero and villain alike) in the Villiren sections of the novel it only makes the lack of connection I felt in the non-Villiren sections all that more apparent.
Villiren is where the action is. Each of narratives in this city is excellent providing a variety of perspectives on threat of war and human experience; perspectives that cover the broad spectrum of legality and morality. There is some real grit here, the fear and desperation are palpable. Revealed in the empty sections of the city and way in which characters both minor and major cling to one another or the jobs and lifestyles that define who they are. That last bit is particularly fascinating for Brynd and Mallum. The former since as the commander of the military he must provide an unassailable bastion of confidence yet his sexuality is a death sentence in the society he fights for; thus he becomes more of a symbol than a man, forced to avoid tangible human connection lest in undermine his ability to lead. Mallum, as the violent inhuman leader of a gang desperately clings to his humanity through his cultist wife. There is a sense of inevitability to his slow slide away from humanity that none-the-less still tragic to watch, equally sympathetic and revolting. Most of the narrative threads intertwined in the Villiren portion of the novel speak towards that monster/human dichotomy and the ultimate fate of many of the characters in the novel’s final climactic battle says much about humanity’s place in the coming war that looms over the future of Newton’s world.
Complaints aside I found City of Ruin a compelling read full of complex human characters (even the inhuman ones were surprisingly human). The setting, while not as vibrant as the as the gloom shrouded streets of Villjamur, none-the-less offers an oppressive atmosphere where scattered detritus of the past adds to the fear offered by the future; a constant reminder that we do not last. While I could have done without what felt like some heavy handed exposition regarding the history the world of the Legends of the Red Sun it left me excited to see where things go from here and whether or not the version of truth given here is even accurate or something else entirely. City of Ruin relies heavily on knowledge learned in Nights of Villjamur, particularly when it comes to characters, and I don’t recommend prospective readers skip that first volume in favor of starting here. Of course, that won’t be a problem for US readers since Nights of Villjamur only saw release here on June 29th. City of Ruin definitely throws in a greater mix of weird elements a fact enhanced by certain things we learn in passing the novel and look forward to seeing more of the Newton’s fascinating world (emphasis on see 😉 ).