Thursday, 17 October 2013

Before the Fall by Francis Knight

Mahala teeters on the brink of chaos. Private investigator and secret pain mage Rojan Dizon has halted a great evil that was being undertaken in the bowels of the city, but in the process has put the way of life for hundreds of thousands of people in jeopardy. The neighbouring kingdoms are threatening war, the city is weeks away from losing all power and the new Archdeacon finds his position under threat. Dizon, now wearing a different face and name, finds his work cut out for him if he wants to put things right.

Before the Fall is the second novel in the Rozan Dijon trilogy, picking up shortly after the events of Fade to Black and exploring the consequences of events in that novel. I found the first novel in this trilogy to be enjoyable but suffering from some of the problems typically associated with debut novels: inconsistent characterisation and worldbuilding, and a general lack of polish. Before the Fall is, happily, a more coherent and tighter novel. There is much less reliance on eyebrow-raising coincidences, the background is more sharply defined and the novel helps to fix some of the issues from the first, doing a better job of exploring the dichotomy between the city's official line that there is nothing 'outside' the city but people knowing a fair bit about their neighbouring powers.

The novel spends a lot of time examining the consequences of the first book, or what happens after the 'happy ending'. The consequences from Fade to Black are messy, complex and there are no easy answers. Dizon, having played the hero in the first book, finds himself now saddled with the responsibility for these issues and runs himself ragged trying to deal with everything, from a project to provide fresh power for the city to social unrest from the reintroduction of a previously exiled underclass to the city. The fact there are also religious and political forces in opposition to Dizon's operations adds an additional layer of complexity to the plot.

Rather than buckling under the weight of the narrative, Knight is able to tie it into a fairly satisfying whole. Dizon rises to the occasion as a self-appointed administrator and troubleshooter and there is a bit less of the blundering around like a bull in a china shop that was his preferred tactic in the first book (at least until the end, which this tendency reappears). He is certainly a more mature and more interesting character this time around. However, some of the supporting cast - most notably Jake - fade into the background in this volume.

There are some satisfying plot twists, rather than the more implausible ones of the first book, but a few issues remain. The ending feels a bit rushed and Dizon doesn't really resolve things through planning and intelligence but through blind luck, so the ending retains an element of being contrived. I'd like to see Dizon having more agency in actually figuring out how to resolve things intelligently next time around. There's also the over-use of a form of 'kryptonite' discovered in the previous novel which can neutralise mages easily and suddenly all of the bad guys very conveniently have access to lots of it.

Before the Fall (***½) is a big improvement on the previous novel, but still arguably fails to reach its full potential. However, it is still an enjoyable fantasy novel set against a striking backdrop. It is available now in the UK and USA. The concluding volume, Last to Rise, is published next month.

No comments: