FYI -- this is going to be LONG and probably will contain spoilers.
What did I like? Well, the author is clearly a fan of Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun. (Possibly of Wolfe's other books, as well. Though the Book of the New Sun is the only one of Wolfe's book I've read.) People either love or hate Wolfe -- just read the reviews on Amazon -- but even his admirers admit that he's not for everyone. I posted some thoughts on Wolfe recently, but I find his (Wolfe's) prose, both in terms of language and emphasis on certain plot points, difficult at times. Newton, by contrast, evokes a similar feel to his world, but it's much easier to figure out what's going on. Sometimes he uses big words, usually biological in nature (quercus instead of oak, which probably isn't really necessary). But Newton is just a LOT more approachable. Newton's characters are also mostly complex, sympathetic, and have suitable flaws (some of the Ovinists are a little one-dimensional). You understand them a little more than Severian and company from The Book of the New Sun. I'm not saying Newton is better or worse than Wolfe, just different, although inspired by Wolfe. If you like Wolfe, you'll enjoy the nods to his writing in Nights of Villjamur and if you have a hard time with actually reading Wolfe, but like the idea behind his books, you might want to give Newton a try. (Note: unless I'm really missing the mark, I don't see all the obfuscatory allegory in Newton that I did in Wolfe.)
Sorry it took me so long to get to the point on that one. Moving on...
Newton has also been described as belonging to the New Weird school of writers which includes China Mieville, among others. I haven't read a lot of Mieville, only The City and the City and Perdido Street Station, and it is to this second one that I want to turn for a bit. Because Nights of Villjamur has non-human species (rumels, garudas -- more on these later) interacting with humans, and a similar city type of environment, and some unexplainable technology (relics in Newton's book and thaumaturgy -- if I remember correctly -- in Mieville's), it's easy to start drawing comparisons. Here, though, I have a more mixed reaction. Both authors' non-human creatures are a little implausible, in terms of biology as we know it. I suppose you can excuse Mieville, who has a background in economics and not biology. But Newton's "about the author" in the back of the book says he has a degree in environmental science. And he uses a lot of biological terms in this book. So he ought to know better.
But then I started thinking, what if I wanted to write a book kind of like these two? I pondered, from an evolutionary standpoint (I have a BS in biology and do chemical evolution research now), what sorts of creatures do exist on earth today, having evolved on the same planet as humans. Which ones are noted for their intelligence? People always mention dolphins, but even allowing for super-intelligent dolphins, it's just not possible for dolphins to take part in society in the same way humans do. They don't have digits, they need to be in the water, etc. So it's a difficult exercise, and I feel like as long as there's an explanation (thaumaturgy does it more for me than ancient relics, as long as we're suspending disbelief), it's okay. So Mieville does a little better in that regard. But...Mieville, at least in Perdido Street Station, was obsessed with describing how filthy everything was, and while we do see some of the seedy underside of Villjamur, Newton is (thankfully) not quite so concerned on that front. I am making an assumption here, that Newton's planet is a far-future Earth. (Not called "Urth" like in Wolfe, but there are enough clues dropped to make you think that's the idea.)
But enough of comparing Newton to other authors. Now is the time for the nitpicking I promised.
The secret underground cult that wants to take over the city is called the "Ovinists." So I'm not sure the origin of this word ("ov" is a root associated with eggs). But what it makes me think of is "ovine" in the biological sense. (You know, like "bovine" refers to cows and "feline" refers to cats.) This cult has some activities related to pigs and pig hearts. But..."porcine" refers to pigs. What does "ovine" relate to, then? SHEEP. Not pigs. (And yes, I knew this without looking it up. Thanks, undergrad bioinformatics class!) So this kept throwing me off. This may not be at all what Newton had in mind with the use of this term for the cult. But it's what I keep thinking of.
As for the one-dimensional characters I mentioned earlier, most of these are Ovinists (Urtica, Tryst, etc.). We do also have a plucky princess (Eir) who learns to fight with a sword and falls in love with her dancing/swordsmanship teacher.
I already talked a bit about the "science" in this book, but I am a scientist, and I think about these things. Here's a list of issues I have:
- The rumels (reptiles)...where to start? They have HAIR. They have to shave. Rumels and humans sometimes find each other attractive, and it sounds like they're not all that different, other than thick skin and tails in the case of the rumels. They also seem to be able to handle life in a city full of humans, which suggests opposable thumbs, etc. Even though actual reptiles are cold-blooded, the rumels are doing just fine in the snow. (I think my own pet iguana would totally stop moving in the snow, and die a lot sooner than say, my warm-blooded guinea pig.) They (the rumels) can also talk. Think about modern reptiles and the kinds of sounds they're capable of making. It's not a wide range.
- Garudas (named after either Vishnu's mount, or else a big evil boss bird in the Final Fantasy games, not sure which -- though guess Vishnu's mount was the inspiration for the Final Fantasy boss) are bird-people. They can't talk, and use hand signals. Wait, what? Hand signals? For birds? When really, birds can actually perform a lot of vocalizations and some can even mimic human speech (e.g. African grays and other kinds of parrots). But birds don't have anything, anatomically, approaching a human hand. If you read on to City of Ruin, you find out the garudas have wings AND arms. And so are apparently hexapods instead of tetrapods, so there's the evolution problem rearing its head again.
- The first mention of these crab creatures bothers me for several reasons. One, they're unlikely to evolve in the size these ones are described as. See my post on giant insects for more on this. If they came from the same world as the red rumels we see them with, the rumels would've outcompeted them. (I know crabs aren't insects, but they ARE arthropods, and the same evolutionary constraints are in force.) Also, their shells are described as deep red at one point. While there are some crabs that are reddish in color, the reddish color we associated with most crabs, lobsters, crayfish, etc. comes AFTER cooking, when other pigments in the shells are destroyed. Anyway, the giant crabs are problematic.
- The length of the ice age coming to Villjamur is a little short, to say the least. It is implied that enough food and fuel can be stored to support at least some of the citizens of the city through the end of the ice age. It is also implied that some of the rumels (whose lifespans are measured in centuries instead of decades) will live through the entire Freeze. Head on over to Wikipedia and check out how long some of the ice ages described there, were. Tens of thousands of years for interglacial periods, and tens of millions of years for ice ages. It's an interesting idea, coping with an ice age. But maybe a little research is in order.
It's interesting to note that Newton worked as an editor, because this book could use a bit of editing. Early on, there are a couple of paragraphs with way too many adverbs (4 words ending in -ly in only a couple of lines!). A couple of grammar errors, e.g. "between you and I." No. This is hyper-correction. "Between you and me" is actually correct. I know that perhaps I harp on this a little too much in my reviews, but I have encountered it a lot in daily life, and it makes me want to pull my hair out.
I wonder a bit if Newton identifies with any of his characters. He's not a military man, so I'm guessing he's not closeted and afraid of being found out. So he's probably not identifying with Brynd. He's also too young to be an older married man who's set in a career, so he's probably not identifying with Jeryd. That leaves Randur? Who goes around for the first half of the book having sex with older women and stealing money from them. But then he reforms and starts having sex with princess Eir, who is at least more age-appropriate.
Now that I think I'm mostly through with the nitpicking, I'll say a few more things about the main characters and then wrap up. (Not the Ovinists, because even though that group supplies the chief antagonists, and sometimes they're even viewpoint characters, they're mostly concerned with taking over control of the empire and keeping their membership in the cult hidden.)
Brynd is interesting; he's an albino who was adopted by a noble family. We don't know anything about his family background. He's a bit of an outcast because of the way he looks. But he's also terribly afraid he'll be outed -- he's gay. He is in charge of the empire's entire military, though he goes on a lot of small-group missions, which is a little unusual. (I'm sometimes a little surprised to see the military fighting with swords and arrows, because the setting makes me think they ought to have guns or something. I'm not sure precisely why I feel this way, because other technology is pretty primitive. People have to light lamps and such. But I digress.) I am hoping we hear more about him and his background in future books. I suspect someone will find out his sexuality in a future volume, but how he or she will use this information, I'm not sure. (Blackmail?) Anyway, Brynd has a liability in addition to a social distance from others due to his looks. But, he does appear to be a capable fighter and commander. Suitably complex as a character, though I've seen a lot of albinos in fantasy fiction lately.
Jeryd is a rumel Investigator with the Inquisition. He is estranged from his wife at the beginning of the book, but manages to win her back. He is probably the least flawed of the characters. While he has lost his wife and thrown himself into his work at the beginning of the book, he's won her (Marysa) back by the end. He's a little dense for an investigator, not suspecting his aide of (1) being an Ovinist and (2) plotting to undermine him. When he goes looking for allies to save all the refugees who are going to be killed by Urtica's men, he conveniently finds them, and no one betrays him. So he can trust all these people he approaches at the last minute, but not the aide he's worked with for years...
Randur is the third main character; he's entered the city on false pretenses (using an assumed identity) and commits thefts, but he's trying to save his mother's life. He's failed her in the past, and he doesn't want to fail her again. However, he gets caught up in his relationship with Eir, and when the cultist who is supposed to help him with his mother disappears, he pretty much gives up looking to help his mother, and devotes himself to saving Eir and her sister from execution, instead. The individual whose identity he stole was to teach Eir dance and swordsmanship and naturally, Randur is also quite good at both and can easily step into the role. He is the engineer of a daring escape, but it's really the only improbable prison break, so as long as Newton doesn't make a habit of it, we'll forgive him for that.
This is probably one of the longest reviews I've ever written. So...for any TL;DR people, Nights of Villjamur is, despite a few flaws, a pretty good effort from an up-and-coming young writer.