A review of Drakenfeld by Mark Charan Newton (Tor, 2013) – originally published in Interzone
I have been looking forward to this novel since the author started dropping hints about it on his blog. He has made no secret of the fact that the story was inspired by his interest in Roman culture and by C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake novels (detective stories set in Tudor England). The result is part historical fantasy, part detective story, which for me is an irresistible combination.
The fantasy world he has created is an interesting take on the late Roman Empire. Instead of an empire, his Vispasian Royal Union is a federation of equal kingdoms held together by shared economic interests rather than a central authority. You might expect such a federation to be very unstable, but Newton postulates a neutral peacekeeping force made up of the brightest, best and strongest of the member nations and large enough to keep individual nations in line. His central character, Lucan Drakenfeld is an agent of that force, the Sun Chamber.
The setting may be a fantastical take on Rome, but that is about as far as the fantasy element goes. At one point, Drakenfeld does encounter what might be a ghost. But, apart from that, there are none of the usual trappings of fantasy. In this respect, Mark’s approach to historical fantasy is reminiscent of that taken by Guy Gavriel Kay.
The detective element of the story is a straightforward locked room mystery. Drakenfeld has returned to his home city because of his father’s death. He receives a summons from the palace: Princess Lacanta has been found murdered inside a locked temple and there is no sign of a murder weapon. He may have a trusty assistant (Leana), but he is no Sherlock Holmes (and she is no Watson). There are no amazing feats of deduction, no brilliant intuitive leaps. Instead he systematically eliminates hidden exits and supernatural explanations and begins to suspect sleight of hand, which casts suspicion on all the courtiers who were present in the palace on the evening of the murder. As he pursues the investigation, the body count rises and the finger of suspicion points at a succession of highly placed individuals.
In addition to the central investigation, there are a couple of secondary stories. While dealing with his father’s affairs, Drakenfeld discovers that his father did not die of natural causes. Soon he has uncovered evidence of drug taking and large debts. Just what was his father involved in? Then there is the story of Drakenfeld’s relationship with Titiana, an ex-lover with whom he is reunited shortly after his return. Both of these secondary stories are neatly tied back into the central story in ways that seem perfectly natural.
Another aspect of the book that is perhaps more characteristic of detective stories than of fantasies is the first person viewpoint: the story is told entirely by Drakenfeld himself. Newton does a good job of developing Drakenfeld’s character, largely by means of his reflections on his relationships with Leana, his father, and Titiana. The result is more than a little reminiscent of Sansom’s Shardlake if you substitute the emotional crippling of growing up with an overbearing father for a physical deformity. Like Shardlake, Drakenfeld is conscious of his own inadequacies, uncomfortable with power (and the violence associated with wielding it), and dependent on his assistant to save him from dangerous situations.
I was less convinced by many of the secondary characters. Apart from Leana, they tended to be stereotypical. Leana, however, is a gem: a foreign woman who can match Drakenfeld for intelligence but who is also a very capable warrior. She enables Mark to indicate the racism and the sexism of the society he has created without being heavy-handed about it.
At 430 pages the story is long for a mystery and the action does flag from time to time (usually when Drakenfeld becomes introspective). But the storyline is strong enough to retain the reader’s interest through the odd slow patch.
The world-building in the novel is very good. Tryum is clearly inspired by imperial Rome, and Mark does a good job of evoking the darker side of the city: the violence, poverty, dingy bars and crumbling lodging houses are nicely juxtaposed against the opulence and conspicuous consumption of the royal precincts. I also like the way he gradually builds up the larger political picture and begins to set the scene for subsequent novels.
Unfortunately there is a certain amount of unsubtle info-dumping. He does try to use Leana’s foreign-ness as a pretext, but this is of limited use since a created world needs a lot of background information. The real problem here is the choice of a first person perspective combined with a central character who is very familiar with the society being described. I was also irritated by some of the writing, for example, redundancies such as ‘hurrying . . . in haste’ (p. 59); modern expressions like ‘narrative timeline’ (p. 69), which tended to disrupt my willing suspension of disbelief; and an overuse of vague adjectives (particularly lovely, beautiful and remarkable).
Those niggles apart, this is a really good read. If, like me, you are fed up with the ‘grimdark’ tendency in recent fantasy, you will welcome Drakenfeld as a satisfying antidote. I’m certainly looking forward to Drakenfeld’s next case.