By Max Frei
The Stranger is the English language debut and first book of the bestselling ten-book Russian series ‘Labyrinths of Echo’ that feature the author and narrator Max Frei. Coincidentally Max Frie is also the pen name of Svetlana Martynchik, a Russian of Ukrainian origin, an artist and author of books on literature and art and who now lives in Moscow.
Max describes himself as a “classic loser”, his inability to drag himself out of bed during the day or to sleep at night has made him practically nocturnal and his disconnection with his work, his girlfriends and his family makes him escape further and further into his dreams, hanging onto the details, rejoining them each night until the man he has befriended in this dream world – the fantastically named Sir Juffin Hully – offers to help him cross over for good, to start a new life there. Max leaps at the chance and ends up in the Unified Kingdom living in the city of Echo working for Sir Juffin who, it transpires, is the Most Venerable Head of the Minor Secret Investigative Force, kind of magical secret agents, and for whom Max becomes the Nocturnal Representative.
Naturally Max’s origins have to remain a secret between the two of them and Max has to learn the ways of this magical new world at the same time as he tries to figure out his new job which provides a running gag for the book as he passes himself off as a barbarian from the Barren Lands, who is only used to a single bathroom instead of the usual eight or nine and keeps cats as pets instead of leaving them to roam wild. While this is fun stuff it also provides ample opportunity for exposition between characters so that we can follow the story but it’s handled with a deft touch and doesn’t deter from a good read.
And a good read this most certainly is.
The whole is basically 7 short stories expertly woven together and unfolding in such a way as to entertain but also to set-up the world in which they are set. If there is a fault it’s that they tend to take a tad too long to set up and then wrap up a tad too quickly but all of that is forgiven for the shear depth and breadth of imagination in the writing. The city and it’s inhabitants are wrought with such fine detail and I cannot remember the last time I derived so much pleasure from simply reading the words on the page. From the House by the Bridge where Sir Max (as he becomes known) goes to work, to the house on The Street Of Old Coins where he lives, to the Glutton Bunba, best restaurant in all of Echo and where they spend more time than is strictly necessary eating huge gourmet meals; the Kamra that they drink constantly, like tea, Jubatic Juice, Soup of Repose, Elixir of Kaxar which makes Max feel invincible, and Chakatta Pie. Then there’s the amobilers they drive around in, the buriwoks (a type of bird employed by the Department of Absolute Order that have such vast memories they act as computer and database) silent speech, the Quarter of Trysts where culture dictates you adhere to a one-night stand and even the celebrating of the end of an old year rather than the beginning of a new one. The sheer joy in the prose is endless.
Equally, the characters are splendidly named and fantastically titled especially Max’s co-workers. Sir Juffin Hully we know about, but there’s also Sir Manga Melifaro, Diurnal Representative of the Most Venerable Head, renowned womaniser, office joker and would-be idle fop; the upright Sir Shurf Lonli-Lokli, Master Who Snuffs Out Unnecessary Lives, a man with a troubled past and with whom Max becomes close friends; Lady Melamori Blimm, Master of Pursuit of the Fleeing and Hiding who would be Max’s love-interest if only Echo’s courtship rituals were not so complicated, and finally Sir Kofa Yox, Master Eavesdropper, a shape-shifter of legendary skill and Sir Lookfi Pence, Master Keeper of Knowledge. Each one is lovingly drawn, the personalities are rich and detailed, the relationships are full and believable and the banter between them, especially Max and Melifaro, is sarcastic and funny and warm like all great ensembles.
There is a fair bit of buzz around The Stranger and it’s been compared with everything from lush fantasy like Harry Potter (but for grown-ups) to noir detective fiction like Raymond Chandler and even Gilbert & Sullivan(!) but it fits all of these descriptions and more with horror and romance in the mix and a lot of humour although this is a mixed bag and occasionally falls a little flat, but given that this is a fantasy world with it’s own culture and language being translated into English I put that down to complications with the original Russian.
I understand that Gollancz have acquired the first four of the ten book series and that bodes well for those like me who enjoyed this first outing. While it’s not the greatest story-telling in the world it is without a doubt a grower and page-by-page it sucks you in, rewarding you with wide smiles and a warm glow; a book a year of such imaginative writing would be most welcome and if you’re a fantasy fan who has been looking for something different then give The Stranger a try, you’ll be glad you did.
If you speak Russian, Max Frei’s website can be found here.