Rojan Dizon is a bounty-hunter in the vertical city of Mahala, an ancient, towering structure where neighborhoods are built on top of neighborhoods. The rich and powerful live at the top, enjoying sunshine and fresh air, while the poor live in the dank and dirty atmosphere of the lower levels. Those bottom-dwellers also have to deal with the residual poisonous seepage of “synth,” a fuel source that has recently been discontinued in favor of the—supposedly—cleaner magical “Glow” because, as it turns out, exposure to synthtox leads to a slow, painful death.
Rojan is successful at chasing down runaways and criminals in part because he’s secretly a pain mage, which allows him to locate people or change his appearance as long as he can draw magical strength from pain. He has a tiny office in a bad part of town, a secretary who is never happier than when the constant womanizing that Rojan calls his love life results in chaos, and a serious case of unresolved anger towards the Ministry, the shadowy religious organization that rules Mahala with an iron fist.
Fade to Black, the opening volume in the Rojan Dizon trilogy by debut author Francis Knight, really gets started when Rojan’s estranged brother begs him to track down his recently kidnapped daughter. Rojan hasn’t had any contact with his brother for years, ever since his mother died of synthtox and his father abandoned them. As it turns out, his brother has since become a powerful official in the Ministry, but still, a little girl is missing and family is family, so Rojan agrees to try and find her, even when it turns out she’s probably in the Pit, the lowest and most dangerous level of Mahala….
So, in case it wasn’t abundantly clear yet, Fade to Black is noir dystopian fantasy. Instead of a smart-mouthed, hard-boiled private investigator, Rojan is a smart-mouthed, hard-boiled bounty-hunter. He narrates the novel in the first person, frequently laying on the world-weary, grim noir shtick a little too heavily. His tough exterior does occasionally crack a little, and he even develops something resembling a conscience, but until that happens you’re stuck in an all-too-recognizable noir atmosphere, complete with groaners like “Trust wasn’t a luxury I could afford in this line of work.”
Rojan is a pain mage in a city where that particular brand of magic is forbidden. “Pain mage” basically means a magic user needs pain as fuel to perform magic. People cut themselves or dislocate their own fingers so they can cast spells. In itself this magic concept isn’t that bad, except it’s really just a variation on blood magic, death magic, or whatever kind of magic you can name that comes with a price for the caster. Even though that magic is highly forbidden, Rojan still uses it frivolously very early on in the book, something I found extremely hard to believe—until, later on in the novel, it turns out that that scene wasn’t just improbable, it was also a very clumsy form of foreshadowing.
Rojan makes it clear on a few occasions that using someone else’s pain for magic (rather than your own pain) is a horribly immoral thing to do. Given the history of the synth and the Glow (which is unceremoniously info-dumped into the story in Chapter Three) and some other plot points Knight carefully sets up early on, I can’t be the only one who immediately connected the dots and saw where she was heading with this novel. I kept hoping there’d be a different twist, but no, it really turned out to be all that predictable. I’m trying to be somewhat vague here to avoid spoilers, but I’m not sure if there’s a point because it’s so incredibly transparent. There’s even a Pixar movie built around a very similar idea.
The oddest thing about Fade to Black is the jarring dissonance between the dark subject matter and the narrator’s voice. Rojan tells the story in the first person, and very often his tone can really only be described as cheerful. He often sounds incredibly chipper about all the pain and horror and blood and mayhem around him, e.g. here during one of the book’s climactic scenes: “Pain: present. All too present. Whoopee, situation normal, hand completely screwed.” I’d quote the rest of that paragraph because it gets several degrees sillier later on, but that quotation would mention the major life-changing fact Rojan has discovered by this point in the novel. To be honest, I more or less saw that one coming too, but I was hoping with all my might that it wouldn’t turn out that way… and yet it did, in a development so patently ridiculous and over-the-top that it makes a joke of the entire plot. To put it in perspective, this plot twist is so worn out that it’s been parodied in a Pixar movie.
Actually, the level of simplicity and sheer predictability on display here would not be out of place in a novel aimed at a younger audience, if it weren’t for all the hard drinking, womanizing, torture, violence, rampant abuse and occasional profanity. As it is, it’s just a predictable story with very few original ideas or characters, a book with a YA reading level but adult subject matter. Even the idea of the vertically growing city is really nothing new (see: David Wingrove’s Chung Kuo), but I admit that I hadn’t seen it used in a fantasy setting before and that Francis Knight uses it stylishly.
Actually, part of the reason I had high hopes for Fade to Black was a publicity blurb promising a combination of “the fantastic imagination of China Miéville with the murky atmosphere of Sin City.” Here’s just about the only way this is similar to Miéville: it’s set in a grimy, run-down fantasy city that’s under the thumb of a ruthless government and that’s described in such detail that you’ll be able to visualize its outline after a while. The city goes up vertically rather than spread out horizontally, but sure, I can see a little bit of New Crobuzon in Mahala’s rainy, grimy streets and general urban squalor. If I squint.
So yes, there’s that setting, with some great atmospheric descriptions of city vistas and buildings, but it takes more than a setting to make a good novel. In the end, Fade to Black is an example of paint-by-the-numbers noir fantasy, held together by ideas you’ve seen before, characters you’ve already met, and plot twists and “revelations” that are too predictable. There are a few positives—a few flashes of originality, a lovely cover illustration, and thank goodness the story moves along quickly—but they’re not enough to rescue what’s otherwise a forgettable novel.
This review was originally published at Tor.com on February 7th, 2013.