Fade to Black - Francis Knight (#1 Rojan Dizon Trilogy)
It was interesting to approach this book so soon after reading another book, by another Frances, looking at overtly similar themes in the world building. Frances Hardinge's A Face Like Glass also features a vertical society, which neatly maps onto a Marxist view of societal change. In Francis Knight’s Mahala, just like Hardinge’s Caverna, the lower classes live physically at the bottom of the heap, and upper classes are living it large in the upper echelons of the city. While the cities couldn't be more different in content, in terms of political impact they couldn’t be more similar.
While Hardinge’s wonderful novel focusses on a young protagonist, and explicitly uses the proletariat uprising as a plot theme, Knight’s focusses on the underclass fighting back on a much more personal level. Rojan Dizon is a pain-mage, and bounty hunter, much in the mold of the Harry Dresden school of character: a lovable rogue, embedded in the underbelly of his city. Instead of an alt-Chicago, our urban playground of choice in Fade to Black is Mahala, a ‘vertical’ city rising out of a valley. Technology is proto-steampunk; the gun has just been invented, a pseudo-petrol, 'Synth', has just been outlawed due to its deadly effect, transport involves ‘carriages’ and a cages on wires in the style of cable-cars.
The premise of this worldbuilding sounds original, and, were it as fully realised as Hardinge’s vertical city it could possibly have been a truly unique and memorable fantastic experience. Instead, we are treated to a world that sounds cool on paper, but is never fully realised. Throughout the book, we are treated to what seemed to be unrealistic and not-fully-realised locations and moments. Futhermore, the central premise of the world building, Mahala’s very verticality, is effectively negated from chapter three onward.
Most of the action takes place in the ‘Armpit’ (colloquially, and uninspiringly known as the ’Pit), the very bottom of the city which has been sealed off since the discovery that ‘Synth’, the major power source in the world, was toxic. On entry to the ’Pit, we see that despite the lingering threat of the ‘Synthtox’, life is actually pretty hunky dory:
As we descended, I could hear the life of the city. Music! I hadn't heard any real music in years: the Ministry disapproved, considering most lyrics to be seditious ... Here, songs blared constantly from broken windows, the old-fashioned music that had had a brief resurgence just before the 'Pit was sealed, all heavy throbbing beats and wailing words, a desperate outpouring of anger against the synth. [pg.73]
On top of music, they have freedom of worship of the major deity, meat, Coliseum-inspired games arena and are generally pretty free and happy compared to Upside. Well, as best as I could tell in some parts of the novel. And then there are other parts were, without telling us why or how Knight suddenly realises that Downside is in fact this shitty place, as we are constantly reminded by the rather info-heavy first-person narrative of Rojan himself. However, apart from being as downtrodden as the Upsiders, and yes, having the threat of Synthtox heaped on them, there doesn’t seem anything that makes the Pit and worse than Upside.
This is not the only example of poor plot-building, which remains either entirely too predictable or, on very rare occasions, is presumed known without actually informing the reader. I found myself all too often, as early as chapter three predicting almost the entire concept and premise of the book, the actions and reactions of characters. When there is a side plot it is both entirely artificial and entirely predictable as it is possible to be, even to the point where it is acknowledged as such by the characters of the book.
For example, on looking for the niece of the main character, Rojan uses his pain-magic (magic that is powered either by one’s own, or others’, pain. Rojan is far too moralistic to use the latter, of course. The major adversary is as obvious as can be just by that description.) to pinpoint her location: EXACTLY west of a companion character’s house. Obviously Rojan is naturally able to pinpoint true North by instinct, even under the city, so finding true west of the house is easy. Eventually, after a pointless cage trip to exactly above Pasha's house, we find that the niece is being kept in the keep of the cod-medieval castle under the city. To this mighty news, we hear: 'No surprise, we thought as much. We've just never known for sure, and not enough help to just go for it, no one to tell us where in the keep' [p.181]. Oh, hooray. I've wasted 50 pages finding the niece only to be told you already knew where she was?
One of the most jarring elements of the novel as it continues is the sense that Rojan as a character never seems to have a grip on just how terrible the events he is witnessing, and attempting to forestall are. Trying to avoid spoilers, suffice to say many innocent parties are in terrible danger, and are, in often gruesome ways, tortured or threatened so. I found it very odd, and at no point is this well explained, that all those in danger are women, particularly young girls, and while the author is female this cannot be seen as an excuse for what can all-too-easily be read as a misogynistic sexualisation of the magic system. The main character, buried in a worldview where women are there to be used, and thrown aside, who proudly acknowledges in a scene where three women discover they are all being played by him early on in the novel that a two week relationship is a long one, obviously doesn’t notice this. We, as readers, must, and it’s a difficult concept to take with lack of explanation attached. Further, throughout the narration is just so cheerful, so off hand and off beat. At times this comes across really well, particularly in the in-between segments between plot points, or where we are being (not often enough) dipped into the world of Mahala, but when it comes to descriptions of the horrors Rojan is facing, he’s far too nonchalant to be believable.
This simple and entirely-too-convenient plot comes to a head following a couple of hundred pages filled with love-triangle, angst, violence-occurring and all-too-obvious-side-quests with the most horrific of endings. It’s so obvious, so singularly uninspiring that it has been the subject of parodies since before its most famous instance in the 1970s. I found myself wishing that it wasn’t going to happen in the way it did, and then physically having to prevent myself from hurting the poor book when it eventually happened.
Finally, affixed to this is prose that is more a violent shade of violet in places than merely purple. There are sentences that literally don't make sense. Take this, from the very first page: 'One sight of me, a burly man in a subtly armoured, close fitting all over with a flapping black coat, and the and the scavenge-rat teens that call this place home took to their heels'. We later find out that an 'allover' is some kind of garment, but the combination of tell-not-show and spelling mistake makes for a reviewer who has to reread that sentence ten times trying to work out what it means, before moving on. Elsewhere we sentences that mix action and description to disastrous results: 'Chains rattled and clanked overhead, cages whizzed by, sometimes too close for comfort so I ducked instinctively' [p. 123], or the splendid paragraphs at the start of chapter eleven:
By the time the cage set us down on firm ground, I was ready to kiss the street .. I might even have done it, if the stink of the place hadn't warned me. It smelled like shit. Literally.
My stomach roiled over. It hadn't recovered from the cage yet, and now I was being assaulted by a smell strong enough to make my eyes water. No wonder the street was empty. [p. 183]
Yes. We know that it smells already. From the paragraph before.
Furthermore, the method the plot uses to go forward often consists of rhetorical questions: 'Those old warehouses were pretty small. You could probably fit half a dozen into one of the minor new ones up there in Trade. The bigger, newer ones took up vast cubed acres. So where else? And more importantly, where was he moving them from?' [pp. 174-5] And the occasional info-dump, like the entirety of chapter three. All told, points we can possibly forgive individually from a debut author, but not collectively.
My concluding thought was as a result of all this simplicity was that if the derivative simplistic nature of the book was substituted into a less-horrific setting we could possibly have some average-to-good middle-grade YA. As it is, we have a box of cheap, predictable tricks and a horrible sense that this was an idea that had some real potential to it, and was cruelly taken over by a Pixar movie whose plot it apes, if said movie were placed in a gritty, over-noired fantasy setting.