The Stranger by Max Frei

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The Stranger by Max Frei

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Category: Fantasy
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A very Russian-seeming alternative world, with a young magical crime investigator. Told over separate, interchangeable cases, his life has a rich, dense detail in its first-person narration, which makes the book a hefty one, but always an enjoyable one.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 544 Date: May 2009
Publisher: Gollancz
ISBN: 978-0575089761

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Max is a dreamer, in that he does a lot of it, partly tempered by his naturally off-kilter circadian rhythm and night-shift routine. He is used to thinking back on, and chasing, dreams, but even he is surprised when he permanently dreams himself into a different world, a country called the Unified Kingdom, and the city of Echo.

Echo is in a realm similar to ours, but the differences when they crop up are noticeable. Cats there are different, there is a regimented one-night stand system, and bathing is not as we would know it either. But Max can fit in well, after a couple of weeks' training in etiquette, manners and life in Echo - and telepathy. For in this world he has some unexplored magical quality, which leads him to becoming a kind of police investigator for cases where magic - which has its own protocols as far as the general public is concerned - has been used.

Which brings Max to his first case - a room which has far too many people dying in it, and no detectible magical energy. Which brings us to the structure of the book. There is almost a soapy quality to Max learning about his new life - training at work, finding out the new foods, drinks and narcotic soups of the Kingdom - but beyond that each chapter is a self-contained case. This then almost reads less like a novel than linked short stories.

These take Max to Echo's posh restaurants on a case, force him to deal with a serial killer, but also allow him to find out the differences between prisons here and there...

The speech used in Echo is also ours, but at one remove, as it is quite archaic. Everyone is a Sir or a Lady, and it all comes across as old-fashioned (I should add that this is not a very high-tech society). It must have provided for hard work for the translator, but it seems to have been very successful. One jolts at seeing the western references (characters look like Rutger Hauer, or Rolling Stones members), but as far as the vocabulary, style of verbose speech and depth of detail - would it be correct to suggest there is something typically Russian about it?

We get deeply immersed in this world, not only due to Max's first person narrative - there is an impressive amount of imagination at work here from the author. Max gets a new home, gets awards from on high and pets to share his downtime with, but beyond such detail the stories could almost be read in any order. At one point he mentions a hundred, and with the first seven here taking up 500 pages and more, I doubt many people would last the distance with them all, so dense are they. Still, with a further nine books (at the moment) to be translated from the original Russian, and a hint online that the English publishers are certainly gunning for four, there might be a deeper, over-arching arc to explore.

As for these cases, they can be wrapped up quite abruptly, which might lead us to believe Max the author (a made up name, it appears) is easing Max the character in gently. They have some semblances to what has been called J-horror (spooky Japanese films), and have a nuance similar to the Day Watch and Night Watch films, even though this opening volume dates from 1997. It is certainly an engaging world, but I think one's appreciation of the book will depend on one's opinion of the balance between fantasy mystery cases and real-life detail.

For me at times the balance was a bit off, but generally I could plonk myself in this densely created reality and learn alongside Max. It certainly allows one to witness this different world, and I can see the whole cycle quickly becoming a cult fiction favourite. I can't pretend I'll be its most avid follower, but I can still recommend this as a highly competent and absorbing fantasy, with a unique flavour that will definitely appeal to the right audience.

We at the Bookbag must thank the publishers for our review copy.

For more magical detection you might like to have a look at the work of Jim Butcher.

Buy The Stranger by Max Frei at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Stranger by Max Frei at Amazon.co.uk


Buy The Stranger by Max Frei at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Stranger by Max Frei at Amazon.com.

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