Monday, 31 March 2008

‘The Reef’ – Mark Charan Newton (Pendragon Press)


Taking a book to read on a train journey is always a risky business. What if you get an hour or two down the track and realise that you can’t stand the thing? If you haven’t paid a visit to the newsagent beforehand then you run the very real risk of being stuck with one of those stupid free promotional magazines (although to be fair they do tell you what to do if the train crashes!)
I’m pleased to say that Mark Charan Newton’s ‘The Reef’ passed the ‘train journey test’ with flying colours. Not a perfect read but a more than worthy debut from an author that I’ll be looking out for in the future…
The threat of genocide in a tropical paradise leads a crew of freelance explorers, under the command of the charismatic Santiago DeBrelt, to travel to the island of Arya to solve the mystery behind the killings. What turns out to be of more concern though is the personal baggage that each member of the crew brings with them and how this is played out. While all this is happening, a group of terrorists are making their own way towards the island, theirs is a mission of revenge and what lies underneath the island will help them achieve this…
The first thing that struck me about ‘The Reef’ is how beautifully the continent of Has-jahn is realised on paper. Not a lot appears to happen for the first chapter or so but I really didn’t care as I was too busy getting totally lost in the winding streets of Escha, the shanty town outside Rhoam and (eventually) the island of Arya itself. Shared anecdotes between characters add depth to the background world building and made my journey an enthralling one. And this was all before I got to meet the inhabitants of the continent. The Que-Falta had echoes of Mieville’s ‘Re-Made’ but the ‘self-inflicted’ twist added a refreshing spin on this. I was really getting into the world-building aspect of ‘The Reef’ and was starting to come up with questions that I wanted answering. For example, why was there a rebellion against science? There are a lot of things left unanswered but this is ok as I never expect to have everything answered for me (it adds to the mystery). It was still a bit of a jolt though when, all of a sudden, the focus shifted onto what was going on in each character’s head. Again, this was really gripping stuff especially how the darker side of human nature was set against a bright and sunny tropical backdrop. The contrast serves to really hammer home how nasty (and sometimes just plain thoughtless) people can be. Newton takes the reader on an ideological journey through the actions of his characters and, for me, this was a real refreshing shift away from recent fantasy that I’ve read. It was just that the change in focus threw me out of the book and I had to get back into it all over again. While a book doesn’t have to concentrate on just one thing I think ‘The Reef’ would have benefited from a smoother transition between themes. The book could have benefited from being a little longer so a little more sense could be made from certain parts of the story. A character who dies gives us his commentary, from beyond the grave, but I was left wondering why he needed to suddenly appear (he disappeared just as suddenly). There is also a surreal conversation with a snake where I really wanted to see where things went but, again, nothing more happened. Was there a talking snake hiding on the island or was a certain character having a minor breakdown? I’ve got a good idea but will never know for certain…
Despite my issues with ‘The Reef’ I still think it’s a book that people will get a lot out of, especially if they’re fans of China Mieville’s work. Whether you’re after soaking up the sights of a fantastically drawn world, or being challenged by the darker recesses of the human mind (or even both!), then this is the book for you. Newton’s next work to be published will be his ‘Nights of Villjamur’ series and, on the strength of ‘The Reef’, I’m very much looking forward to seeing how this turns out.

Eight out of Ten

6 comments:

Robert said...

Glad to see you reviewing this Graeme :) I've been pretty curious to read Mark's work so hopefully I'll get a copy soon...

daydream said...

This is really interesting stuff, some kind of modern up to date fantasy as far as the terrorism and genoside parts go and then comes worl building with psychological aspects. Sounds like a book one must read.

J.G. Thomas said...

I've had the privilege of reading some of Mark's manuscript for Nights of Villjamur, and can safely say it is very promising indeed.

Chris said...

Great review, Graeme; and the "train test" is the perfect way to evaluate a book... :)

gav(NextRead) said...

Train Test? Now all I need is a train ;)

Great review.

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