Fade To Black by Francis Knight – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews one of Orbit’s latest debut novels.
“Edgy, fast-paced, innovative magic system, wonderfully realised dystopia and interesting gender dynamics help establish the debut as a decent one, but there is still ample room for development that should not be ignored.” ~Shadowhawk
My experiments with the urban fantasy genre continued recently with Francis Knight’s debut novel for Orbit, Fade To Black, the first in the Rojan Dizon series featuring a rather unlikely hero in the character of the same name. The setting of the novel is something that I can accept being straight out of Warhammer 40,000 since the visuals that the author conjures up remind me very strongly of an oppressive hive world within that setting. Consequenly, there are a lot of elements of the novel that I found to be worth the investment of time I put in it, but at the same time, there were some elements that put me off.
To begin with, Rojan Dizon is at first a fairly stereotypical character. He is a private investigator down on his luck, living from job to job, and looking for the big case that will solve his problems. Slowly, the author begins to turn him into so much more. As we learn, Rojan is a pain-mage, part of a dying breed of people within the city, following the witch-hunt like persecution from a few years back. It is an ability he has attempted to keep hidden, with only his two closest confidantes being aware of it. We learn of Rojan’s past, how his family and friends have been affected because of the city’s relentless persecution of pain-mages, and how he has ended up where he is by the time the first chapter opens up.
The novel provides a very detailed look into Rojan’s past, giving us ample context for his beliefs and motivations in the present. He is a character who is flawed but true to himself, a reluctant hero who finally rises to the occasion because of the atrocities he witnesses in pursuit of his missing niece. In the final tally of things, Rojan is a nicely realised character. The only “real flaw” in the character was that the author highlights Rojan’s somewhat chauvinistic attitude far too much. We are reminded again and again that Rojan is a man that women would just love to go to bed with. I can see what the author was trying to do with this, and I can appreciate it, but the execution is way off base. If this aspect of his character had been toned down, and treated with moderation, then it would not have grated on me as much as it did.
Unfortunately, this aspect of his character is magnified by the setting at large since the portrayal of women in the novel is often less than desirable. They are mostly there to be rescued by Rojan as he saves the day yet again. Perhaps this harks back to the novel’s origins as an inspired detective noir within an urban fantasy setting, but that should not mean that the women should be relegated to a secondary role in the novel. The chief female character in the novel is initially presented as a fairly strong character in her own right, able to stand up against Rojan really well no matter the situation. But as it turns out, Jake’s character fails to live up to the expectations by the end of the novel, and she becomes a damsel in distress. Compounding that is the fact that she is named Jake. Had the novel treated its female characters in a much more positive manner, in a way that they are not always reliant on Rojan, then this kind of dissonance would not have existed.
Past that one major flaw however, the novel in itself is quite an enjoyable one. The magic system, involving self-inflicted pain, was rather innovative; the more intense the pain, the more powerful the magic. In age where lots of writers are experimenting with magic systems, Brandon Sanderson’s metal-based process in Mistborn system most of all and Brian McClellan’s gunpowder and voodoo magics, it is great to see even more diversity. The implications of the pain magic on the characters involved are really interesting. Its a fantastic way to create a more engaging narrative and develop the characters, given how deeply involved both the magic and the characters are. The author doesn’t shy away from the more violent imagery associated with such a magic system either. There are numerous instances in the novel where Rojan, most of all, inflicts an intense amount of pain on himself in order to carry through the day.
And speaking of the magic, the city of Mahala is one which works on magic. Before the pain mages were persecuted by the newly-risen Ministry, the city employed countless such mages to help run many of the city’s factories and other processes. But slowly, over time, the Glow has replaced that pain magic and the Glow itself has a strong magical component to it, one with some rather shocking twists later on in the novel. The visual realisation of Mahala, with its many walkways and causeways, its tiers upon tiers of levels built on top of each other, the lack of sunlight in the lower reaches such as Namrat’s Pit, its all beautifully done. I remarked earlier that Mahala reminds me of a hive-city from the Warhammer 40,000 setting. It would be equally fair to say that Mahala is equally similar to Coruscant from Star Wars or Tantor, the galactic capital in Isaac Asimov’s Foundations novels. The image of an entire city, or a planet in the cases of Coruscant and Tantor, covered in metal with hundreds of levels, and people inhabiting each and every one of those levels, is a very powerful and strong ones. That the author has managed to visually reference these other settings while yet remaining unique is highly commendable.
The novel takes some time to get going. Its not until more than halfway through that it really gets going, as the various story arcs begin to connect together, and the larger story of Rojan’s niece’s abduction unfolds. Like I said before, there are some shocking twists in the novel towards the end, and by the climax the experience is like sitting on the edge of the seat, holding on for dear life, waiting for the shoe to drop. The novel has an abrupt ending, but it also sets up the sequel quite nicely. I wish it had been a couple chapters longer, so the author is able to tie things together a little better, but all the same, I am satisfied enough with how things end up.
Francis Knight is an author to watch out for, and I look forward to reading the sequel, Before The Fall, a title which all by itself is quite ominous considering how Fade To Black ends.