City of Ruin and The Book of Transformations both by Mark Charan Newton (Tor)
‘Cities are the perfect way to represent another world,” says writer Mark Charan Newton. “Cities are where people, commerce, social trends, the arts, government, all meet in one vast, sprawling, horrible and beautiful place — Plus, from a creative perspective, cities are wonderful for creating and controlling the right mood: they can be dark and foreboding or clean and fresh — even terms such as light stone or dark stone lead to subtle ways of controlling the reader’s experience.”
It’s around two cities that the narrative of Newton’s series Legends of the Red Sun spirals. Villjamur, where the series began, is the capital of his world: the capital of an unravelling empire, folding in on itself as a new Ice Age begins and alien invaders menace. Villiren is a settler city thrown up on the northern edge: a frontier economy in every sense.
Villjamur, he says is “very much a European city: cobbled streets that wind around each other apparently in no logical manner; the bleak weather of the United Kingdom; the very old architecture that stands out of place against surrounding buildings. There’s subtle history there.” By contrast, “what was old in Villiren had been torn down for the sake of throwing up newer, blander structures. And that seemed to fit in with the modern economy too — things being built to save costs rather than for aesthetic beauty — quick-built urban sprawl.”
Ruin and Transformations are both second books in the series: they run in parallel time frames in the two locales, and Newton isn’t prescriptive about their order. Ruin follows the characters we know: heroic albino commander Brynd, world-weary investigator Inspector Jeryd, deposed, devout young empress Rika, and their companions. The lawless context of Villiren liberates some (Jeryd’s spouse Marysa learns martial arts and battles the invaders), though while the imperial church still reigns, Brynd finds homophobia as vicious on the periphery as it ever was in the metropolis.
Back in Villjamur, some characters already encountered move centre stage: the modernising usurper Emperor Urtica and Jeryd’s former junior, investigator Fulcrom. Alongside them we meet others, most notably a trio of superheroes, blackmailed into accepting their enhancements.
It’s mainly through the eyes of one of these, the transgendered Lan, that we see the ancient city’s struggles to transform and survive.
Forces and fault lines
Transformation is both a literary motif and a guiding metaphor for characters and societies.
The power of the first book, Nights of Villjamur (2009), lay partly in its evocations of place, and that’s a power Newton sustains. But these two take on wilder and weirder colours. The Empire is a post-apocalyptic setting, and the scientific relics of the time before — studied and only erratically mastered by cultists; misinterpreted and censored by the church — start intruding noisily into the present. Newton layers up a terrifying world where neither time nor space are safely sealed from what went before and what lies elsewhere.
And, of course, that’s always the way with Empires. However weird some of their denizens, the forces and fault lines in these societies are ones we instantly recognise: power, class, race and gender. Transformations, particularly, made a surreal read in the week when London was going up in flames. “I find it odd,” Newton says, “given how many empires there are in SFF worlds, that there is seldom room to examine just what’s wrong about empires — the demeaning way in which empire robs a country of its heritage, culture, not to mention its wealth. Superficial, almost apologetic approaches to empire do tend to annoy me a little, if I’m honest.”
In counterpoint to the decadent power of the Empire and the endowed power of the superheroes stands political anarchism: both the effective self-directed democracy of Ysla, the cultists’ island, and the brave, halting attempts of Villjamur’s underclass rebels to achieve something similar. “Real politics is consciously in everything,” says Newton of the text, “but mostly in the background — Because that’s what politics is for most people — it’s in the fabric of our worlds, and not the centre of them.”
Both books are adventure, not polemic. Legends of the Red Sun peoples a fantastic, epic world with engaging, complex characters. Science, magic, ghosts and gods intrigue, and action kicks ass. But what distinguishes the series is that the ideas beneath are rigorous enough to keep you thinking once the book is closed.
To read a full interview with Mark Charan Newton, go here.