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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Labyrinths of Echo Book 1: The Stranger. Max Frei (Writer), Polly Gannon (Translator). Gollancz (2009)


An exuberant and highly entertaining fantasy with a well thought out alternative world and a very engaging cast. Max Frei, an insomniac and self described classic loser, finds that his dreams have more substance than he imagined. In his dreams he meets Sir Juffin Hully, Most Venerable Head of the Minor Secret Investigative Force in the city of Echo. Sir Julian, recognising talents that Max does not realise he possesses, offers him a job as his Nocturnal Representative in Echo. Max travels across dimensions to Echo and takes up his post. His department investigate unusual crimes, activities that are likely to involve the illegal use of magic. Max has cases that range for mysterious deaths in a neighbours house to a haunted prison cell to a case where a cook is converted into a meal.
The book does not have an overarching plot, it is constructed as a progression of episodes that steadily reveal more about the city of Echo, Max's developing abilities and his fellow officers in the Minor Secret Investigative Force. The city of Echo is an nicely developed context, it sidesteps the frequent quasi-medieval stereotypes of a lot of fantasy, and manages to create a lively location for the action. The structure of the book means that the information about Echo is delivered steadily to the reader as Max himself finds it out, the city and its inhabitants emerge in a natural and intriguing way.
The cast are lively and hard working, Max himself is pleasantly calm and ready for adventure, he develops a willingness to become involved in his adopted home which brings the reader very much into the story. The rest of the investigators are given a chance to shine and develop across the episodes and they are strongly varied and vivid. Max's unsurprising romantic entanglement with one of his fellow investigators is given substance by the unexpected handling.
The writing is noticeably not Anglophone in origin, there is a slight formality to the book that suits it very well and marks it is coming from a different context. The episodes are cleverly constructed and enjoyable, the final one trails off a little, not so much as to injure the book, it tries a little too hard. Overall very good fun.

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