Fade to black (Rojan Dizon)

Fade to black / Francis Knight. First published 2013.

uuuuuuurgh

Fade to black is a biopunk* fantasy novel about Rojan Dizon, angsty antihero who inhabits the shadows of the city of Mahala. Mahala is unique in having been built over a huge chasm, so as the city has expanded vertically instead of horizontally. This leads to the wealthiest people living on the upper levels while the poor are forced to live in the polluted lower levels. It’s a trope that’s appeared everywhere from the Final Fantasy series (Midgar) to Star Wars (Coruscant) but is relatively unusual for a fantasy novel. Knight also includes a fairly novel magical system where magic is fueled by pain, and a system whereby pain-mages can harness the pain of others to fuel their own power.

To be honest this book was kind of a struggle for me to finish. I liked the concept, but the execution just didn’t grab me. It’s not that it was bad, it just ended up being incredibly mediocre.

Title qualified by the protagonist’s name because of the sheer quantity of books called Fade to black and the fact that the author’s surname would make qualifying it that way ambiguous without the context.

*Yeah, this work is probably technically outside the scope of the term “biopunk” but it’s the best fit. I suppose it’s technically closer to steampunk but given the worldbuilding it’s really closer to biopunk, and tonally it’s WAY closer to Gibson et al. than it is to Priest or Saintcrow. Cyberpunk derivatives are probably going to get their own ranty post later, if I remember.

Plot summary

Dijon Dizon is a pain-mage, hiding his illegal powers from the powerful Ministry that rules the city of Mahala. Mahala is powered by an enigmatic source of energy called the glow, replacing the highly dangerous synth that killed Dizon’s mother. Dizon is bitter about the death of his mother and just about everything else. He is hired by a sinister man to track down his runaway teen daughter and finds himself drawn into events much larger than he imagined…

So how whas it?

I’m really ambivalent about it. Apparently I’m not a huge fan of noir fiction-influenced fantasy, which on its surface seems like something I’d enjoy. Dizon is a little too angsty and his character isn’t really fleshed out particularly well. There’s lots of telling “oh, he’s this way” without showing, which is especially odd considering it’s a first person narrative.

There are a plethora of secondary characters, who are developed with much more skill than Dizon himself. It’s not an excessive number of characters and they are fairly easy to keep distinct, so that’s a plus.

I found Fade to black kind of boring, to be honest. There was too much action and not enough character or plot development. It’s dark and a little squicky at times but it still feels like the author was playing it too safe for the story they actually wanted to tell. The whole thing reminded me more than a little bit of the game Dishonored(which I really really wanted to like but just couldn’t get into) – dark with an interesting premise but somehow frustrating. It’s part of a series but I don’t ever see myself picking up the next volume.

Part of the issue was that despite the relative uniqueness of the premise, everything reminded me of something else. I mentioned Dishonored above, but it extends beyond that. Mahala is highly reminiscent of New Crobuzon with a touch of Midgar thrown in. The magical system follows Sanderson’s laws really closely. I’ve mentioned previously that I don’t really care for Sanderson’s approach to magic – I feel like it becomes too clinical and throws the baby out with the bathwater in an attempt to eliminate the temptation to use magic as deus ex machina. I do agree that the  economies of fantasy worlds frequently seem to clash with the apparent uses of magic but issues of economics are virtually always an issue in fantasy novels. My biggest pet peeve here is widespread reading of books, including fiction, when there’s no sign of anything remotely resembling a printing press. Loosely-defined magic actually makes those disconnects easier for me to accept. I have convinced myself that there is an entire community of unseen scribe-mages in the Elder Scrolls game who use magic to reproduce books.

Note to Sanderson: easier way to avoid deux ex machina? Don’t write one into your book/story/whatever. Done.

I think it’s interesting to note that all of the authors I see advocating using magic this way are Brigham Young graduates. Interpret that how you will.

On to the final section before I digress any more.

Recommendation

I’ve never recommended this book and I probably won’t ever. Not because it’s bad, there are some interesting thematic elements and there’s a definite social commentary element to the story, but because I found it so hard to care about this book that I highly doubt I’ll ever remember it when it comes time for reader’s advisory.

Cross-recommendations:
Perdido street station / China Miéville
Debris / Jo Anderton
The warded man / Peter V. Brett – This book is super problematic for a number of reasons. I’ll probably review it at some point, but be aware that it is the most offensive novel I have ever read. It’s not just using sexual abuse as a cheap way of generating sympathy or creating drama, it’s the horrifyingly cavalier method with which Brett treats the issue.

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