Third in Mark Charan Newton’s Legend of the Red Sun series, The Book of Transformations, was one of my most anticipated read this year and I looked forwards to returning to Villjamur to discover the events unfolding there in a timeline parallel to that of City of Ruin.
The Book of Transformations picks up where Nights of Villjamur left off: the refugees are freezing to death outside the gates whilst the citizens inside attempt to carry on their lives as normally as possible through the onset of an ice age. Investigator Fulcrom of the Villjamur Inquisition returns as a full POV this time as he is given the honour and challenge of leading The Villjamur Knights.
The trio of Knights, with Fulcrom’s help, are to stop Shalev, leader of the Caveside anarchists who are threatening to tear the peace within Villjamur’s walls apart. The four become the most likeable characters of the book as well as the most different leads I have read about in a long time.
The Knights are no longer mere humans, each of them having been enhanced by cultists to become something more. Simply put, they are superheroes. With powers beyond mortal expectations, I expected the Knights to leave me in awe of their accomplishments, to make me read through the exploits with excitement as they went about defending a city on the brink of being torn asunder.
But, despite being wonderful characters with unique and likeable personalities, the Knights seem to do little other than stand around on bridges, watching the city, stopping the odd petty theft or arriving too late on the scene of a crime to save everyone. Nonetheless, they are still paraded around as a symbol of hope—much like Captain America was at the beginning of his career. Despite their enhancements, the Knights are found lacking and when they finally seem to be given a chance to show what they are really capable of—at the very end of the book—they are going up against odds that even the X-men would have been overwhelmed by.
Despite all this, the Knights remain my favourite part of the book: as people, they are some of the strongest characters Newton has presented the reader with.
Lan is a transsexual MtF: it means she was once a woman born in the body of a man. But she is no longer. Cultists, much like modern science, have the capacity to rectify where nature screwed up. With that part of her story behind her, Lan is the most likeable, realistic and genuine female character I have encountered in a book. Toughened up by her past she is ready to fight for her freedom and to defend the innocent, but at the same time she is a delicate woman, almost like a girl growing into adulthood, learning her body and her place in the world. Newton does an extremely good job of getting her normality across, showing to the world that despite her initial difference, Lan is just another person—not someone to be afraid of. And when love gets involved, Lan becomes all the more a multi-faceted character and I found myself hoping through the entire book that she could be, at last, happy.
Lan follows in Brynd’s footsteps in that she allows Newton to wave his banner for minorities and although this one isn’t as close to my heart as the one Brynd represents, it was good to see Lan portrayed as a normal person whose past bears no relevance on the grand scheme of things.
Fulcrom is the Investigator for this instalment, and the centre point for a lot of the plot. Not only is he placed by Emperor Urtica in charge of the Knights, he is the only person remaining in Villjamur who is aware that Urtica attempted to have the refugees outside of the city murdered, whilst blaming the then-Empress Rika for it all, which means that more than anyone, he has to watch his step. Fulcrom also comes in contact with a strange priest, Ulryk, who carries knowledge that could tear the foundations of the Jamur Empire apart.
This where the story started to lose me: Ulryk’s quest throughout the book is filled with potentially awe-inspiring mysteries and the hope for answers to the questions raised at the very end of City of Ruin. But nothing seems to be explored to its full potential and Newton teases the reader with what should be ground breaking revelations before suddenly discarding them to the side. I won’t go into too much detail, for fear of letting spoilers slip to those who haven’t read the book and would perhaps find in the priest’s discoveries more excitement than I did.
The problem, I believe, was that I expected more. After reading the previous two books, I expected something that would make my jaw drop to the floor, both for how innovative and imaginative it was, but also because of the reasoning behind, because of the plot that unravelled around it. Instead, there was barely anything: when Ulryk discovers a hidden world/dimension/time/giant cave—I have yet to figure out what it was and the little attention paid to it makes me think that I never will—under Villjamur, so little fuss is made about it that he might as well have entered a well lit and familiar bistro.
The culmination of the search was an anti-climax and reminded me, in more ways than one, of video games where the player is sent to retrieve yet another lost artefact, forced to fight a few, low-level monsters before returning to what they were doing before. That image was only solidified by what happened when said artefact was recovered and I couldn’t help but begrudge Newton for what, to me, seemed to cheapen the technology and magic he had portrayed until then with what appeared to be a rather cheap trick.
From the previous two instalments, the character of Dartun Súr and the cultists of the Order of the Equinox return. First, I need to say that through the previous two books, I went from finding Dartun vaguely intriguing to downright irritating by the end. So when I read he had returned from the Realm Gates, I hoped that I would once again find him intriguing. But no, try as I might, Dartun’s chapters, written mostly from Verain’s POV, were a struggle to get through. Little of substance happens. Actually, apart from several slaughters and a most bizarre flight to the moon—another one of those wonderful discoveries Newton thrusts at the reader before taking it away and that leaves me as frustrated as if a video game had shown me a cut-scene of an awesome city I would never get to go to—nothing of relevance happens.
It isn’t until the very end that all is explained and I felt that I could have just easily not read any of the previous chapters concerning the group of cultists and instead just read that and known all there was to know.
Once again, with The Book of Transformations, Newton shows us that he is a master at political messages through his fantasy, although I found it almost suffocating this time round, relegating amazing characters and what could have been fantastic plot-lines to being nothing more than pawns in a chess game. Book-long antagonists feel like nothing more than political devices who never get the chance to outlive their use as they, once irrelevant, get chucked to the trash pile.
Nonetheless, the truly great characters manage to shine through: Lan and Fulcrom flanked by the other Knights were what made this book for me, what made me want to keep reading even when the plot made me shake my head in disbelief at what was happening, or more so at times, not happening.
Compared to the previous two instalments, The Book of Transformations left me bitterly disappointed. It progresses the plot along, but doesn’t possess the same strengths that the other two books had. At times too slow to progress, at times too crammed with action, The Book of Transformations doesn’t seem to have a set pace and leaves the reader slightly disoriented for it. It lacks the true magic present in the other books that swept me away to Villjamur and Villiren, that made me want to know what was going to happen next, and more importantly, why.
All in all, The Book of Transformations will be read by those who want to know what happens next in the series, but might leave them with a bitter taste in their mouths as they finish it. Nonetheless, it is a beautifully written story and its strong characters alleviate the disappointment created by too many unexplained occurrences.
With a fourth book to come, the only thing that makes me look forward to carrying on with the series is the idea of returning to Commander Brynd Lathraea, my favourite character of the series and on whom I am unashamedly crushing on. Apart from that, I fear where the plot is going to take us and exactly how much more destruction there is going to need to be before things finally make sense.