English writer Mark Charan Newton is already an established fantasy author thanks to his The Legends of the Red Sun novels, and recently he’s branched out with a new series that follows the investigations of Lukas Drakenfeld, an Officer of the Sun Chamber of the Royal Vispasian Union.
The book has just made it to paperback and is being marketing with a prominent cover quote from The Independent newspaper declaring it to be “a fast paced fantasy thriller” which I personally find a little baffling, as in truth it’s none of those things.
It’s surprisingly lacking in any fantasy elements given Newton’s past track record. The Royal Vispasian Union is heavily based on Ancient Rome in the pre-imperial era (Newton acknowledges this at the end with his references), to the point where – with a few tweaks of place names – most general readers would probably consider this a regular historical detective novel along the lines of Lindsey Davis’ Falco series also set in Rome, or the later Cadfael novels by Ellis Peters. There’s no weird creatures, alchemy or strange technology, and no sorcery or magic anywhere to be found. There’s a lot of references to Gods, spirits, deadly curses and prophecies, but no more so (and with no more actual substance to them) than were actually to be found in the real Rome of the day.
Some reviewers have suggested that the setting of intrigue and skullduggery in the royal court of King Licintius makes Drakenfeld a good read for fans of Game of Thrones, but again that’s an unhelpful comparison. There’s nothing of the unremitting darkness or explicit and shocking bloodletting that you’ll find in George RR Martin’s works which have redrawn modern fantasy along the lines of what’s become known as ‘grimdark’ – Drakenfeld’s world might certainly have its dangers, but it’s an altogether more civilised place for the most part.
And I find it hard to classify the book as a “thriller” in the sense of, say, the novels of Lee Child, Dan Brown or Ian Fleming. There simply aren’t that many thrills in the story, although things do pick up toward the end as the stakes of the game that Drakenfeld finds himself involved in escalate to dizzying heights. Even then, the story spends a lot of time sitting around and talking about events happening elsewhere as things build to a climax. And as for “fast paced”: well it certainly has its moments but for the most part Drakenfeld felt surprisingly languid and relaxed to me. Which actually turned out to be really rather perfect for the material.
So having said what this book is not, it’s about time I got around to what is actually is – which at its heart is a classic locked room detective story. A member of the royal court has been killed in impossible circumstances, and Drakenfeld – newly returned to his home city of Tryum after the sudden death of his father – is assigned to find the culprit. That takes him through the streets of the city pursuing leads and suspects, and at the same time he finds himself under threat from gangs seeking repayment of debts that his father had allegedly built up before his death. Is there a connection between the two strands?
To our modern eyes, Drakenfeld is not an especially striking detective, either in terms of distinctive method or eccentric character. He’s certainly no Sherlock Holmes or Hercules Poirot. It’s just that by the standards of the society he’s living in, he comes across as somewhat more straightforwardly observant and logical than anyone else. Overall he seems like a rather ordinary, decent guy, pleasurable company to pass the time by which is just as well as you’re going to be spending the next 400 pages in this man’s company in what is a single point-of-view novel.
With Drakenfeld himself slightly blending in to the background, it gives the rest of the book’s cast of characters a chance to blossom: his assistant Leana is an especially interesting and vivid creation about whom we continually gobble up nuggets of information. There’s also a local senator by the name of Veron who lights up the page every time he appears, and a conquering general called Maxant just back from battle. But can either be trusted? We meet others along the way such as Drakenfeld’s bewitching former lover Titiania while others make an impression in just one scene, and of course hovering over everything are the King and his sister Lacanta, and it’s the latter’s strangely conflicted personality which proves to hold the key to getting to the bottom of the case.
I loved meeting all these people and finding out about the Romanesque world in which they live. The novel might not have all that many thrills but it certainly had more than a few surprises along the way – one plot development is delivered as a curt sentence at the start of a chapter that was such a shock it made me blurt out an expletive when I read it, a sure sign that I was thoroughly engrossed and caught up in the story.
Overall though I’d use the same words to describe Drakenfeld as I would many of the cosier kind of murder mystery stories: it’s a pleasurable and enjoyable read with a satisfying conclusion that makes complete sense of everything that has come before it, which is really the highest compliment you can give to a whodunit.
If that sounds like the sort of book that appeals to you than I wholeheartedly recommend Drakenfeld for your reading list. I’ll certainly be coming back and reading further books in the series in the future. However, if you’re looking for a “proper” fantasy work or even thrills then this might be a little too laid back and nice for you. Your call – for my money you’ll be missing out on a most agreeable read if you decide to pass on this one.
Drakenfeld is available in paperback from all good booksellers, and also in e-book formats. The second book in the series, Retribution, is due to be released in hardback on October 23, 2014.