25 July 2016

Retribution

A review of Retribution by Mark Charan Newton (Tor, 2014) – originally published in Interzone

Retribution is the second volume in a series of crime fantasies whose central character, Lucan Drakenfeld, is an agent of the Sun Chamber, which enforces law and maintains peace across the Vispasian Royal Union, a loose federation of diverse nation-states. Lucan is by no means a typical fantasy hero: he has no particular martial or occult skills, he suffers from epilepsy, and he is plagued with self-doubt. On the other hand, he is basically a decent human being and refreshingly optimistic in spite of his constant exposure to the darker side of human nature. To compensate for some of his weaknesses, Newton has given him an assistant, Leana, who is a skilled warrior. The first novel, Drakenfeld, combined this likeable central character with a plot in which good ultimately triumphs and the truth is revealed, which led me to hope that the series might be the beginning of the fight-back against the grimdark tendencies that have infected so much recent fantasy literature. So I have been eagerly awaiting this sequel.

The new story begins just a few weeks after the events recounted in Drakenfeld. Lucan and Leana have been ordered to Kuvash, capital of the northern nation of Koton, to investigate a brutal murder. Two more murders that bear certain similarities to the first take place shortly after their arrival. In all cases, the victims were tortured before death, their bodies were mutilated and subsequently left to be found in public places. But what clinches the connection between the deaths is the fact that all the victims had possessed examples of an extremely unusual gemstone. As Lucan and Leana follow the trail of clues, it leads them to uncover a decades’ old conspiracy implicating leading members of society in human trafficking and a sinister religious cult. In addition to carrying out the duties that brought them to Kuvash, the Queen of Koton co-opts them to protect her daughter, and they succeed in foiling an assassination plot by a rival clan. Meanwhile, the precarious political situation in Lucan’s homeland, the neighbouring country of Detrata – a political situation brought about in part by their previous investigation – has degenerated to the point where an imperialist senate has gained power. At the end of Retribution, as Lucan and Leana leave Koton, Detratan legions are marching into the country.

Retribution is well plotted. Its story arcs are carefully woven together and equally carefully disentangled in the denouement. The story is also well paced with just the right amount of action to keep the reader’s attention. Nevertheless, I struggled to like this book. I was hoping for a departure from grimdark tendencies, but instead this volume is unremittingly grim. By the end of the novel, Drakenfeld’s decency and optimism are looking increasingly naive and his rejection of a gift with the potential to cure his epilepsy may well strike the reader as quixotic.

By comparison with its predecessor, the characterization in Retribution was disappointing. Some effort was clearly put into developing two new characters – Sulma Tan and Princess Nambu – but many of the others were stereotypical. Unfortunately, given that this story could otherwise stand on its own, Lucan and Leana were not as clearly characterized in this volume. We are given new insights into Leana’s background, but in spite of this she seems less likeable: gone is the clear-sighted observer of a strange culture who is easily able to match Lucan’s intelligence; here she comes across as cold and even psychopathic.

One of my irritations with Drakenfeld was an excess of unsubtle info-dumping, which I felt was exacerbated by the combination of a first-person perspective and a setting with which the central character was very familiar. I had hoped the foreign setting of Retribution would allow any necessary info-dumping to be handled more naturally. Unfortunately I still found the info-dumping distracting. Another irritation that has found its way into this volume is a tendency to overuse vague descriptive adjectives. In addition, at times I felt the language – particularly in some of the dialogue – was strangely formal. The result was that I was less able to enjoy the story because these issues kept forcing me to pay attention to the mechanics of the writing.

In conclusion, this is a well-constructed story, which more or less stands on its own (though I would recommend would-be readers to begin with Drakenfeld to get a better understanding of Lucan and Leana and, indeed, of the historical background to the Vispasian Union). Sadly I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it because of the aforementioned issues with the writing. However, anyone who enjoyed Drakenfeld will certainly want to read Retribution as the second act in a larger drama involving the future of the entire Vispasian Union.

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