It still has its moments, I suppose, but broadly speaking, these are fewer and farther between in 2013 than in previous years. Though I would argue that it is at or perhaps even past its peak, the mark of grimdark is now embossed upon the genre. Where we used to delight in dreams of dalliances with dragons, our nightmarish narratives now revel in death instead. Today’s foremost fantasy tends to traffic in disgust and duplicity rather than the beauty and truth of its youth.
Mark Charan Newton’s nostalgic new novel is immensely refreshing in that respect. The several evenings I spent reading it were so perfectly pleasant that I struggle to recall the last fantasy novel I felt such unabashed fondness for.
Don’t mistake me: Drakenfeld has its darkness. Its plot revolves around the murder of a royal, and there are several other deaths as it progresses. We witness few of these firsthand, however. Instead we see the scenes of said crimes from a detached detective’s perspective—a detective who definitely does not relish the more disturbed elements of his profession. In a nice nod, a number of Drakenfeld’s friends ask after this aspect of his character; they wonder, in short, why he is so soft, as if an attraction to violence of the visceral variety should be the norm now.
“Whatever we plan, I’d prefer it if we could keep the killing to a minimum.”
“As week a disposition as ever, eh, Drakenfeld?” Callimar chuckled and held his arms wide like a bargaining merchant. “We’ll try. But sometimes a little blood is unavoidable.”
Sometimes, sure. And indeed, Newton’s new book is not what you’d call bloodless. But violence, the author argues, isn’t the answer to every question.
I say well said.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Who is this character in any case? Well, like his father before him, our protagonist Lucan Drakenfeld is an Officer of the Sun Chamber: an independent organisation which essentially polices the eight nations of Vispasia during an era of peace and prosperity. He and his companion Leana have been occupied on the continent for a period of years when a messenger alerts Drakenfeld to the fact that his father has died of an apparent heart attack.
So home he goes; back to Tryum, ostensibly to attend to Calludian’s remaining affairs. Whilst there, though, Drakenfeld becomes convinced that there’s more to his father’s passing than meets the eye—and as he’s considering this quandary, one of the most significant figures in the city is killed. As the only Officer of the Sun Chamber in the area, he’s called to the scene immediately… which tells a tall tale if ever there was one, of a murder most mysterious:
“Let me summarise to be clear: around midnight, the king’s sister Lacanta was found with her throat cut. The weapon is not here. None of her jewellery has been removed and she has—I will assume for now—not been tampered with. The temple was locked and sealed, and the key left in the door, on the inside. There’s no other way into the temple unless one was a god; no way out, apart from through those doors.”
Nothing about this killing is simple. Still, after a personal plea from the King, who very much misses his sister, Drakenfeld agrees to look into it. In time, his investigations will take him from one side of Tryum to the other, from the slums of poor Plutum to the opulence of Optryx, the rich district. Initially, everyone is a suspect, but eventually Drakenfeld determines that the crime could only have been committed by someone close to the King’s sister. By one of the several senators in love with the lovely Lacanta, perhaps, or even—Polla forbid the thought—a member of the remaining Royal family.
If the stakes weren’t already great, the longer Drakenfeld spends looking into the locked room mystery that is Lucanta’s killing, the bigger the body count becomes. Furthermore, it soon becomes clear that the case could have knock-on consequences for every nation of Vispasia, because about the city there are mutterings “about foreigners, about borders, about the glories of old—and of military expansion.” There seems a real desire to go to war again—to take territory and glory by force, of course—and unseating someone senior, assuming someone senior needs unseating, is likely to rouse an increasingly republican rabble.
Our man can’t afford to concern himself with that—a murderer is a murderer, whatever his or her standing in the public eye—but he will have to tread very carefully indeed. Which brings me to my key complaint about Drakenfeld: Drakenfeld himself. One the one hand, he’s a convincing individual: by using his homecoming as an adult to neatly reframe his former feelings for his father and an old flame, Newton develops his character absolutely adequately. Alas, he also comes across as somewhat bumbling, hardly ever evidencing the insidious intelligence requisite for people in his position, such that one wonders how he ever became an Officer of the esteemed Sun Chamber.
That Drakenfeld and the persons of interest he interviews appear unaware of his failings makes this all the more frustrating:
Tomorrow was the Blood Races. Senator Veron had sent a message for me saying that he would meet me in the morning and walk me to the Stadium of Lentus; I realised this would give me the perfect chance to speak to the other senators who were intimate with Lacanta. I would have to think of subtle ways to press them. Certainly, they would fear being quizzed by the Sun Chamber, but I wanted them to think they were not under suspicion so they opened up.
I’ll only say that these “subtle ways” are hardly Columbo-calibre, yet almost every subject opens up as if they were being interviewed by the great detective himself.
Aside this dissonance, I enjoyed the novel an awful lot. I admired its restraint and appreciated its laid-back pace: it’s a slow burner, sure, but when it catches alight, it does burn bright. And though I recall feeling crestfallen upon learning that Drakenfeld would be a mystery, mostly, I’m pleased (and not a little relieved) to report that the secondary world Newton sets said thread against allows for the author to build another of the brilliant cities that have helped make his fantasy fiction distinctive. Tryum’s Roman-influenced architecture is splendid, all “colonnades, fountains, market gardens, statues [and] frescoes,” whilst its cluster of cultures recalls the vibrancy of Villjamur:
Preachers leered or chanted from the relative sanctuary of decorative archways, a dozen dialects rising to my ears, whilst passers-by lit incense to offer to small statues of their gods. The sheer variety of people in Tryum was mesmerising. From clothing to foods to the decorations on clay pots, one could always walk the length of the continent in a single street.
Involving as all this is, Drakenfeld’s speculative elements are essentially secondary to the murder mystery the novel revolves around; though they add depth and texture to the tale, they have no narrative impact. Which is not to suggest Newton’s latest is lacking in that regard. Far from it. But be aware that this series seems more interested in the mundane in the final summation than the magical. Drakenfeld is apt to satisfy Falco fans as much or more than genre fiction devotees like me—and I had a pretty terrific time with it. Like as not, you’ll find lots to like too.
Drakenfeld is available now from Tor UK.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.