City of Ruin (2010) is the second in Mark Charan Newton's Legends of the Red Sun. Last year's Nights of Villjamur was one of 2009's huge releases: a post-new-weird (newer weird?), semi-slipstream, gritty fantasy that combined edgy characters with complex, noir plotting.
I actually wasn't a huge fan.
Don't get me wrong - I deeply admire Mr Newton. I think his "2.0" approach to fandom has been an exemplary, modern model of how creators and readers can communicate. I also thought his first book, The Reef, was outstanding. And, moreover, I think he's a pretty swell guy. All of which explains why I'm a little sheepish about being critical of Nights of Villjamur.
Unfortunately, without setting up why I didn't like Nights, I can't lavishly praise City of Ruin, so stick with me for a while.
Whereas Nights of Villjamur had all the elements it needed, the book was rough around the edges. Plot lines were resolved too rapidly. Characters weren't given the space they needed to come to life. Dialogue felt a bit forced and, in some cases, disjointed. Everything was there, but it read like a collection of discrete elements rather than a single story - Mr Newton was serving more as an editor than a creator.
In City of Ruin, Mr Newton's own style now reigns supreme. The many hundreds of imaginative elements - vampires to trilobites to alien gods - are all neatly and perfectly fused together into a single immersive world. The book's plot is similarly well-composed. A murder mystery, a re-ignited romance, a blackmail plot and a war - all seemingly disconnected at the beginning, but as the story unfolds, the reader learns how they're all different aspects of a single, sinister story. Everything builds to a wild conclusion that left me both exhausted and counting the days until the next book in the series (about 185).
Perhaps nowhere is the difference between Nights and City more emphasised than in the setting. Whereas Nights took place in the titular Villjamur, the book was trapped in the shadow of the many crumbling dystopian fantasy metropolises that came before it - from Gormenghast to New Crobuzon. City of Ruin is set in a different corner of Mr Newton's fantasy empire, the border city of Villiren. If Villjamur is the heart of the empire, Villiren is the dodgy armpit (essential and smelly). It is dangerously corrupt and self-indulgent, with its citizens more concerned about turning a dodgy profit than the alien army on their doorstep. From its brothels to its markets, Mr Newton builds something endlessly fascinating and uniquely his own.
As Mr Newton says himself, "if anyone was going to read just one book of mine, I’d like it to be this one". As much as I liked The Reef, I wholeheartedly agree. City of Ruin combines Mr Newton's fertile imagination with a confident, triumphant narrative style. It is an excellent work of contemporary fantasy that rightfully elevates him from a newly-discovered talent to a mature and successful one.