Friday, 16 September 2016

Drakenfeld and Retribution, by Mark Charan Newton

I don't read a lot of fantasy these days (of the swords, sandals and sorcery ilk, anyway) but Drakenfeld came well recommended so, when in the mood for something different, I decided to give it a try. There is the traditional pre-gunpowder feudal culture in the form of ten separate monarchies linked by a non-aggression pact overseen by the Sun Chamber, which maintains its own army and whose officers act as investigators. Lucan Drakenfeld is one such officer, a young man who has been working far from home with the assistance of Leana, a female warrior from another culture. He receives a message from the Sun Chamber to advise him of the death of his father, the resident officer in Tryum, the capital of Detrata and Lucan's home city, and to instruct him to travel to Tryum to tidy up his father's affairs.

Lucan has no sooner arrived than the King's sister is found murdered in a temple, locked from the inside. The circumstances appear impossible so Lucan has to use his wits to work out what happened. Another high-profile murder shortly afterwards tests his resources to their limits, and he is not helped by discovering that his father was not the pillar of respectability he had always believed. The rediscovery of the love of his life is also a major distraction. He eventually solves the problems, which all prove to be interrelated, although the finale leaves various loose ends, both personal and political.

I enjoyed this book: it is well-written with good characterisation, Lucan being an admirable and likeable hero although his right-on 21st century attitudes, especially towards women, seem a little improbable in this context. The ambivalent relationship between Lucan and Leana is intriguing; there is no more than a suggestion of possible magic, Lucan depending on his powers of logical analysis to unravel the plot; and the whole story has more of an adult feel than usual (although not in the sense of being sexually explicit, which it isn't). There is just one scene in which gruesome events take place (curiously, that is the very first one, so there is a risk that some people might be put off). If I were interested in writing fantasy, this is the kind of story which I would want to be able to write. I read it quickly and immediately sent off for the sequel, Retribution.


Retribution continues the story of Lucan and Leana, who have now left Detrata for the neighbouring state of Koton and specifically its capital city, Kuvash. A mystery about a missing priest soon becomes a murder enquiry, followed by a second and a third – and Lucan is racing against time to discover what links these high-profile killings before there are yet more deaths, against a background of increasing inter-state tension. So far, so much the same as the previous book, although the story is not as gripping as the plot is less complex and Lucan is not put through such a tough emotional mill.

What did surprise and disappoint me is the writing style, which is distinctly inferior to Drakenfeld. The first hint of this is on page 1, with the sentence: "The sudden deluge delighted them and their faces creased in innocent delight." The repetition of "delight" is a little jarring. I noticed many occasions on which the word choice, if not incorrect, seemed inappropriate for the context or for the speaker, and one (repeated) error in which "vagaries" is used when it is clear that "vagueness" was the meaning the author wanted to convey. Sentence construction can also be rather clunky, as in this extract from pages 3 and 4:

A figure tramped quickly up through the swamp-like gardens of the station post. As she marched along the deck her boots thudded on the wet wood. It was my companion Leana. She took the steps up towards me two at a time. Her wax coat was sodden, even though the journey to the gatehouse to check for any new messages was short. A thick leather cylinder was clutched in her hand.

All of this meant that my enjoyment of the book kept being undermined by shortcomings in the writing. I was left with the impression that Newton might have worked out the outline of the plot then passed it to some less talented writer to flesh out. At the very least, the writing needed much firmer editing to achieve the polish of the original book.

Curiously, Newton doesn't seem much interested in the series. His own website lists Retribution as "coming soon" (it was published in 2014), and while the conclusion leaves various loose ends which clearly set up a third volume, there is no sign of this appearing.