Sunday, October 27, 2013

Fade to Black by Francis Knight

Fade to Black by Francis Knight is the first book in the Rojan Dizon series published by Orbit in the US. A synopsis can be found here. Black is a entertaining read full of wonderful wordbuilding that is held back by a predictable plot and unrealized potential. The book's plot largely revolves around the three main characters: Rojan, Jake, and Pasha in the fantastically realized city of Mahala.

Mahala is such a fascinating setting. It is a city that has grown vertically to great heights. The highest points are occupied by the powerful and wealthy and the lowest are occupied by the powerless and poor. As a narrative metaphor, it works perfectly. Especially given that the strength of the powerful is derived from the exploitation of the poor, which is a fact both central and critical to the plot. Another neat point is that the lowest levels of Mahala are blocked off, hidden from the ‘middle class’ section, referencing the hidden underbelly of the criminal world and human trafficking.

As the story progresses, Rojan descends. He descends into the bowels of Mahala in one sense and himself in another. As the secrets of Mahala are revealed, so are the secrets of Rojan. As Mahala is freed, so is Rojan. Mahala and Rojan are tightly linked. The reason isn't clear by the end of Black, and I hope it foreshadows interesting developments in book two and three of Rojan Dizon. At the end, Rojan is ‘reborn’ as he ascends from the depths to the heights. As a narrative device, I thought Knight used the setting of Mahala to great effect.

Other elements of the story were less well done. The first is the treatment of women. The rest of this paragraph will contain spoilers so please skip ahead to the next paragraph if you wish to avoid them. The central secret to Mahala is the exploitation of young girls to create Glow-- a magical substitute for electricity. These young women are systematically abused to harvest their ‘pain’ and then simply thrown away at the end of their usefulness. I did not feel there was a good explanation as to why it had to be young girls. My take was that this was an attempt to be very shocking and ensure the reader KNEW that the bad guy was EVIL. I think this is a sloppy shortcut that could have been handled differently.

The second thing that could have been handled better was the ending. It was simply too over the top and veered into the surreal. It feels as if every couple pages contains a major revelation. The characters undergo more change in the last few chapters than in the entire preceding book. While thrilling, I wish they had been spaced out more and integrated better into the story. With so much happening in the closing chapters, I feel it diluted the book's ultimate ending.

The biggest weakness of the novel was the unrealized potential of the three main characters: Rojan, Jake, and Pasha. I think Knight had a really interesting setup but was not able to excute it. Rojan is self-absorbed and rarely looks beyond satisfying his own needs. Jake is an abuse victim-- a very attractive one-- who has created an entirely new personality to deal with her trauma. Pasha is an empathic mage who desperately loves Jake. This relationship triangle has so much potential that is largely glossed over. Only in the closing chapters of the book does it start to shine. Abruptly, it's over. The highpoint is Rojan’s self-realization of his shallowness is embodied by his lust for Jake. If that highpoint would have been sustained over the whole novel, Black could have been amazing.

In summary, Fade to Black is a really good opening novel by a first time author. The inventive worldbuilding alone makes the book worthwhile to read. The low points I consider fixable as Knight grows in her craft. I am excited for the potential in the rest of the series and want to see if Knight call pull it off. I can’t strongly recommend the book, as it is uneven and not everyone wants to commit to a trilogy. However, it is a fun read I would recommend to anyone interested in something a little different. My opinion however may change when I finish the series; hopefully for the better.

Memorable Quotes:
"It smelled of ingenuity, something that seemed to ooze from Dwarf like other men oozed sweat."
"See, this is why I don't like other people relying on me, on responsibility. Because dislocating your own thumb to cast a spell really fucking hurts"
"'I'm sorry, I believed me too, and I should know better.'"
Image Source: Hachette
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN: 9780316217699

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