Nights of Villjamur
by Mark Charan NewtonNights of Villjamur is the kind of fantasy that's ideally suited to reading in the depths of winter while you're snuggled up in front of a blazing fire. This high fantasy adventure takes place at the dawn of an ice age, when the gates of the city are about to be closed to thousands of massed refugees. The Freeze is coming, and it's likely to last for decades. Anyone stuck without adequate shelter is not going to survive, so people clamour for sanctuary. But the gates will be closed to all but the fortunate, and mainly that means the landed rich and anyone who serves them.
There's a lot going on in this story. Council members have lost their lives in unusual circumstances, and it's up to Rumex Jeryd to investigate. Jeryd is a rumel, one of a number of non-human species that feature. Rumels monopolise the top posts in the Inquisition, and they justify this because their longer lives mean they have more experience. This hierarchy is something Jeryd's aide, Tryst, resents. Another mystery is the wholesale slaughter of a large number of the supposedly elite Night Guard. Commander Brynd Lathraea wants to investigate this further, but when the Emperor commits suicide he is diverted on a new mission. He has to pick up the new Empress and protect her from harm.
Meanwhile there are cultists who attempt to raise the dead, shady councillors, refugees dying outside the gates, reports of a genocide in the north, and a forbidden religious sect is gathering its forces. And a handsome young man with a false name has arrived in town with a clear goal: to make a fortune by fair means or foul, and then leave to save his mother.
There's so much going on in Nights of Villjamur it's hard to say whose story it is. It's told from lots of different points of view, and this approach has its drawbacks. We're often given too much information, so although various mysteries are set up they don't remain puzzles for long, and this tends to break down the suspense. The story becomes less about working out who committed the crimes, and more about what will happen next and whether the protagonists will get away with what they're planning. For the most part this works, because characters such as Princess Eir, Commander Lathraea and Rumex Jeryd are compelling and believable, and because the story is intriguingly complex. It's a world you can bury yourself in, not least due to the very detailed worldbuilding. There are half-man half-bird garudas, blood beetles that swarm from the ground, cultists who study and manipulate the artefacts of lost civilisations, and much more, and it all enhances an eerie sense of wonder.
This would be escapist fantasy at its best, if it weren't for Chancellor Urtica. Not only does he have a name that sounds like nettle rash, he's also far too obvious. There's a decent surprise in store at the beginning of chapter 23 when he's thinking about his family, but it doesn't make up for the way this little anecdote reveals far too much about Urtica's character too early on in the book.
However Urtica doesn't ruin the story, because he's far from the only antagonist. The plot is so dispersed that no single character can make or break it. It's a novel with a little bit of everything, with nods to Frankenstein, hints of science fiction in the magical devices of the cultists, and oppressive claustrophobia in the caves and tunnels within Villjamur. It's a romantic yet socially aware fantasy, varied and colourful and full of swordplay and intrigue. For such an ambitious mishmash of elements it comes together surprisingly well.
31st December 2010
Review © Ros Jackson