The Book of Transformations is the third book in Mark Charan Newton's Legends of the Red Sun series. Although there's an advantage to reading the rest of the series, but it isn't a requirement. Each book stands neatly on its own, introducing new characters, fleshing out old ones and stirring new themes into the philosophical chili of his landscape.
With The Book of Transformations Mr. Newton returns to Villjamur, the towering city (and Imperial capital) that dominated the first book in the series. There have been changes. An apocalyptic new ice age is still looming on the horizon. Alien crab people are leering at the world from a hostile dimension. The Empire is aggressively at war with its neighbours, seeking to stockpile resources and grab new land. At home, things are no more peaceful. The Emperor Urtica has brought about a regime of haves and have-nots, building extravagant new markets for rich merchants while driving the poor and the refugees into a subterranean undercity. It's land war overseas and class war at home.
Into this mess stride a handful of key players. Dartun Sur is the ambitious cultist first introduced in Nights. He's just now returned from an (unsuccessful) exploration of alien dimensions. Much to the consternation of his remaining followers, he's somehow changed by the experience. Shalev is another cultist - of sorts. She's a renegade from a secret, utopian community, come to Villjamur to foment an anarchist revolt against the Empire. A charismatic leader, she's a real danger to the powers that be. Shalev doesn't just arm the city's desperate underclass with revolutionary rhetoric, she's also got an endless supply of nasty magical weaponry. Transformation's third major character is the aptly-named Inspector Fulcrom. A Rumel (a sort of fantasy race that I like to think of as really big wallabies) investigator for the Inquisition, Fulcrom has been tasked with putting together a new special force of crime-fighters. Ostensibly, they're for everyone. Really, they're to help the Imperial Status Quo battle Shalev.
Mr. Newton cheekily opens The Book of Transformations with "This was no time to be a hero." The rest of the text explores the meaning of that sentence - why does heroism fail? Or, more accurately, superheroism. The core conceit in epic fantasy is that the hero is actually better than everyone else. He's the best swordsman; she's the most powerful wizard or the preternaturally clever thief; he's the child of prophecy; she's the chosen one. Not only are they more important in the Great Scheme of Destiny, they're actually more talented. Be this via exhaustive training (and who doesn't love a fantasy training montage?) or just as the result of an innate power, the hero is superhuman.
If you'll forgive the tangent, one of the best expressions of this trend is in role playing games. The default setting for Dungeons & Dragons is currently known as "Points of Light". The concept is that the world is largely dark and dangerous - bits and pieces of civilisation flicker on the landscape. Towns of frightened peasants, huddled together against the goblin-filled night, etc., etc. The same rationale applies to the characters. The RPG hero isn't a frightened peasant ("Roll to hide under the barn... a 2? You are devoured by a jackelwere."), he's a creature of great skill and epic potential. Even a first level adventurer is leagues above the common folk - not just in courage, but in strength, magical ability, skills... even hit points. Adventurers are physically different.
Mr. Newton explores this difference in his post-modern look at fantasy heroics. Many of the main characters in The Book of Transformations are also superheroic - in possession of powers way outside the ken of the average bloke.
The Villjamur Knights, the "recruited" team of three heroes intended to protect the city, are the headline examples. Lan, Vuldon and Tane are selected by the increasingly-neurotic Emperor to undergo a series of mysterious cultist trials. As a result, Lan can control gravity. Vuldon is super-strong. Tane becomes a were-tiger with phenomenal agility. The three are an unstoppable force... except that they aren't.
The three were selected because of their physical potential and their pliability. They "get to" become superheroes because the Emperor can be blackmail them into obedience. Similarly, their newfound skills are only of limited use. Being able to break down a door is lovely, but what's there to do in a riot involving thousands of people? Claws are cool but any nasty bureaucrat with access to the right information can keep Tane on a leash. In the greater scheme of things their talents are meaningless. The Emperor has an army to do his dirty work - the role of the Knights is merely to provide a glamorous distraction. This isn't high fantasy. Flying people aren't going to solve Villjamur's problems.
The other key players are facing their own barriers to the successful achievement of the traditional heroic standard. Dartun Sur has been modified by his former alien captors. He can level a village or fly to the moon, but he doesn't know why. He's immensely powerful, but with that comes an equally gaping detachment from the rest of humanity. Sur alternately marvels at his own prowess or barrels inhumanly forward on a mission that he doesn't even fully comprehend. But in becoming superhuman, the defining minutiae that make him human, like hugging his girlfriend or patting a dog, are lost to him. But there's a certain degree of Faustian karma within Sur's transformation. Unlike the Knights, Sur always sought power. He wanted to become more than human. Wish granted.
Shalev, for one of the book's ostensible villains (at least, as far as the Knights are concerned), is the closest interpretation of proper epic heroism. Tragic past + great power = moral obligation. She's out to topple an evil empire and - upon viewing said empire through the readers' eyes - she's got a point. But upon closer examination, Shalev is no better than Dartun Sur, or even the Emperor. She has superhuman abilities at her disposal and is determined to use them. She's possessed by her mission and, although she permits discussion, she is ultimately no more open-minded to dissension than any other superhero. Just like any stableboy with a magic sword, she's got force and certainty on her side. As a Point of Light, her ends justify her means. Of all the superheroes in Transformations, Shalev is keenest about her new role. Even the alien Sur has moments of questioning his powers and his mission. Shalev's absolutism makes her the most frightening of the lot.
As a comics fan, I naturally tend toward an analysis of The Book of Transformations' take on fantasy heroism - or, more accurately, the transformation from human to superhuman. But this is only one of the many, many lenses that can be applied Mr. Newton's substantial text. He has given his book an audacious title and yet the finished product manages to live up to it. The book also scrutinizes the moment that utopian socialistic aspiration turns into anarchist revolt, and when enlightened absolutism becomes an oligarchical dictatorship. Transformations marks a turning point in the series as well - the climax of the internal politics and the dawn of a more external focus. The characters themselves undergo a series of transformations: static definitions of gender, class and species are all evolved over the course of the book. Transformation is a broad topic, but Mr. Newton approaches it from every conceivable direction. This is a book that, like many of its Dying Earth predecessors, will provide grist for criticism for decades to come.
That said, The Book of Transformations isn't a weighty ontological tome. It is a cheeky, well-paced adventure story with flashing blades and fiery sorcery a-plenty. There's a stirring romance, a haunting journey through the land of the dead, a series of explosive battles and even a chase scene or two. Mr. Newton maintains the light touch of the surreal that served him so well in City of Ruin - he discusses the very, very strange in the same dry manner as the very, very everyday. Be it the trilobites on the street or the giant in the harbour, the Weirdness is treated as commonplace, which, of course, just makes it all the more wonderfully bizarre.
After an auspicious (if raw) start with Nights of Villjamur, Mr. Newton found his voice with City of Ruin. He hasn't lost it. The Book of Transformations is the work of a confident and mature author. An author who, having become comfortable with his style, is keen to wrap it around increasingly ambitious challenges. And Mr. Newton has just such a challenge on his hands: with a fourth novel in the works, he must to corral the scattered refugees of three tightly-packed volumes in the series' conclusion. I'm aching to know how it all resolves.
An extract of The Book of Transformations (as well as other enticing materials) can be found at Mr. Newton's blog. Other Mark Charan Newton material on Pornokitsch includes an interview from earlier this year, our review of City of Ruin and an unofficial bibliography of his work.