Mark Charan Newton’s no stranger to epic fantasy, but for his latest novel, he's changed things up a bit. Not only has he replaced the general pseudo medieval Europe setting with something closer to Ancient Rome, he’s put together a compelling novel that wouldn’t be out of place in the modern thriller genre.
Charon Newton's new novel Drakenfeld shares more with the historical fiction and detective fiction novels than it does with traditional epic fantasy, but there’s just enough to his world that will make this feel just at home with most epic fantasy readers. The result is a deliberate, interesting novel that grows in scale from beginning to end.
Some spoilers ahead.
Lucan Drakenfeld is a member of the Sun Chamber: an investigative body that is charged with maintaining the fragile political balance of the Royal Vispasian Union, a group of monarch-led nation states. When we open with the novel, he’s summoned to his home city of Tryum, where his father, a prominent member of the Sun Chamber, has been found dead of an apparent heart attack. Promoted to his father’s position upon his return, the sister of the king, is found brutally murdered during a ceremony. The incident thrusts Drakenfeld into the center of a massive political conspiracy that grows. As the body count climbs up, the investigator finds that there's a curious link between his father's death and that of the king's sister, and that to bring the mounting crisis to a close, drastic actions are going to be needed.
Fans of George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire and Scott Lynch's Gentleman Bastard novels will likely find this book welcome territory. Newton uses a light touch with the fantastic elements here, presenting an interesting world that’s only somewhat removed from our own: curses, witches and prayer may or may not be part of the reality. The fantasy here is in the atmosphere, rather than in the actions, and this lends itself well to a novel that's rooted in empirical detective work. Newton deftly sketches out the city of Tryum in great detail, from the rich to the poor, and from the military and the politicians in a way that helps support both the world and the story at hand. It's an immersive location, one that draws from the author's own readings on Ancient Rome, but one that also feels just as modern and as complicated as our own.
Drakenfeld as a character is a nice alternative to the 'Grimdark' characters of Joe Abercrombie or Richard Morgan. He's the straight man archetype, inherently good, competent, and maybe a little boring: if not for his job, he'd be someone you wouldn't glance at twice. At the center of this storm, he's the right guy to sort out the problems, even as he's being manipulated by various parties within the city and at the center of the murders. You can't help but root for Drakenfeld as he works to both reconnect with his past (through an ex-lover and father who's left behind a bit of a mess), but you can't help but wonder how he'll react when the world inevitably crashes down around him. Since Drakenfeld is accompanied by an assistant, Leana, an outsider to Tyrum, Newton gets to explore some pointed thoughts on racism and sexism, without being heavy-handed.
Drakenfeld is a contagiously optimistic novel, from its politics to its characters. Newton's ancient-styled world also belies the real nature of his novel: this is a cutting-edge political thriller that for the most part, wouldn't be out of place in a major city like London or New York or modern day Rome. Some pretty modern ideas are advanced here: the idea of a continental-wide, cooperative Union is a fairly recent innovation in human history, and it's clear by the end of the book how this body is a stabilizing force, and we're given some pointed hints along the way that the balance is always in flux and ready to collapse. Where this sort of story might rely on a fantastic, overarching organization (such as what we see in China Miéville's The City and The City), we've got something a bit more grounded. Above all of this is a running theme of how a representative government can hold the actions of a ruling class accountable for their actions, and there's some real authoritarian overtones by the end of the novel that might lead to things to come in future installments. Hopefully, we’ll see this tease played out in greater detail in the future.
If there's one downside to the book, I can't help but wonder just why it's a fantasy novel. In a couple of ways, I could see the story working fairly well as a modern political thriller, set in a 5 minutes into the future scenario. While fantasy-lite novels are certainly welcome (and this one's handled well), I found myself waiting for something about this world that would make this mystery work because of it's internal workings: ie, is there a magical or otherwise fantastic element that caused the initial murders? There's really nothing like that there, and what this ends up as is a novel that's hard to pin down when it comes to genre. On one hand, this is good, because it shows that genre doesn't have to limit the content of the book. On the other hand, however, there's certain expectations and conventions within the fantasy canon that never come to any fruition here, and it left me a bit underwhelmed at the lost potential here.
The central mystery likewise caused a bit of a split in reaction from me. On one hand, Newton expertly puts together pieces of a puzzle: bodies drop, clues are left behind as a major conspiracy comes together, before the other hand shows itself, with something that falls very close to Game of Thrones territory. The mystery works, and works well, but I can't help but think that we've seen this party before, and it didn't end well then. What's more interesting is what comes later, as Drakenfeld clears its final chapters, when we start to see some hints of the overarching political motivations in Tryum, and how it impacts a much larger picture. Hopefully, we'll get to see that play out a bit more in the next novel.
Overall, Drakenfeld comes together as a smart, interesting thriller, but one that feels rigorously structured, forcing its characters to go from point to point, rather than being moved along on their own merits and cunning. Both Drakenfeld and Leana come off as competent and interesting figures, if somewhat passive, and it feels like we need to give them a bit of space to breathe a bit. Newton's world and politics presented here are both drawn and immersive, and it makes me eager to return in a future installment.