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[Book review]: The Rojan Dizon Trilogy by Francis Knight

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Book 1: Fade to Black




The city of Mahala is located in an enclosed pass, the city built up the sides of the mountains over hundreds of years. Ravaged by plague, magical chaos and religious discord, the city is barely ticking over, relying on the mysterious substance 'Glow' to power its machines. Rojan Dizon, a private investigator and secret mage, is forced to go deep into the underworld to find his missing niece, but what he will find there will transform the future of the city.

Fade to Black is the debut novel by Francis Knight and the first in the Rojan Dizon trilogy, which continues in Before the Fall (out now) and Last to Rise (out in November). It mixes elements of 'magepunk', steampunk and urban fantasy to create something that could be new and innovative, but which fails to fulfil its full potential.

Which is not to say that the book isn't fun along the way. The novel uses a mixture of fairly familiar archetypes for its characters, from Rojan himself (hard-boiled mage detective, useless at relationships or managing money, lives for one-night stands and occasional alcoholic over-indulgences) to Jake (ice-queen warrior with trust issues) to, well, everyone really. However, the author gives the characters enough depth and backstory to make them convincing, even if they often remain familiar.

The book makes much of its setting (not least on the impressive cover), a vast vertical city built in a narrow mountain canyon. Mahala isn't exactly the next Ankh-Morpork or New Crobuzon as far as iconic fantasy cities go, but it serves reasonably well, with effective descriptions of vertiginous drops, seedy bars and cramped shops. The worldbuilding is interesting, if at times confused: characters are simultaneously told that there is nothing interesting outside the city, but also retain a fairly detailed knowledge of the neighbouring kingdoms and their economic dependency on Mahala. This is a contradiction which Knight satisfyingly ties up in the sequel, but in this first volume just seems confused. What works better is the magic system, which is based around the application of pain. The way magic works seems logical and well thought-through, with some interesting applications that become clearer (and more disturbing) in the latter half of the novel.

Where the novel threatens to unravel completely is the completely over-the-top ending, in which plot revelations that would be acceptable in isolation are stacked on top of other, more ludicrous and cliched revelations until the whole thing teeters on the edge of collapse. It's only Knight's skill in getting through the plot twist overload and establishing a potentially strong new set-up at the end of the novel that leaves the reader with hope that future books won't be quite so implausible. Fortunately, a third of the way through the sequel, it does appear that Knight's writing skills have improved between the two books.

Fade to Black (***) mixes potentially strong and fascinating ideas with occasionally dubious execution and the employment of a few too many fantasy stand-bys. The ending borders on the silly, but the author just about manages to hold everything together to deliver a fast-paced, enjoyable read (if you don't think about it too much). It is available now in the UK and USA.

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Book 2: Before the Fall




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.

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Book 3: Last to Rise


Mahala is under siege. The Storad are poised to storm the city and seize its monopoly on trade across the continent. The Archdeacon is powerless to stop the cardinals and other high-ranking members of the city's elite from fleeing. It falls to Rojan Dizon and his accomplices to find a way of saving the vertical city or seeing it destroyed.
Concluding the Rojan Dizon trilogy, Last to Rise picks up on dangling plot threads from Fade to Black and Before the Fall and attempts to tie them together nicely in a suitably epic conclusion. It more or less succeeds. Character arcs are concluded - in some cases rather tragically - and the underlying social and economic problems of the city are used to fuel a transformative finale.

Knight continues to build on the successes of the previous volume: Rojan Dizon's character growth into a more mature individual continues and there is further development of the worldbuilding and feel of the city, which actually feels more like a place where people could live and work now than in the first volume, when it felt like a bit more of a painted backdrop. The magic system continues to be innovative and well-thought-out (and it's a nice twist that Rojan actually can't use anywhere near as much of it as the other, more inexperienced mages due to his own psychological issues). Where the book falters is its pacing and how it impacts on the characters. There's a huge amount of plot going on here and this pushes some of the supporting cast into the background. Most surprisingly, we still get very little in the way of appearances from Jake, one of the major and more interesting characters of the first novel, who has now been relegated firmly to the sidelines.

The ending of the novel is interestingly ambiguous, balancing tragedy with moments of triumph, and leaves things open-ended enough so that future books with these characters remains possible. But for now, this is a reasonably satisfying ending.

Last to Rise (***½) is a worthy conclusion to an intriguing debut trilogy. The book will be released in the UK and USA on 26 November.
Edited by Werthead

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