The monarchies of the Royal Vispasian Union have been bound together for two hundred years by laws maintained and enforced by the powerful Sun Chamber. As a result, nations have flourished but corruption, deprivation and murder will always find a way to thrive.
Receiving news of his father’s death Sun Chamber Officer Lucan Drakenfeld is recalled home to the ancient city of Tryum and rapidly embroiled in a mystifying case. The King’s sister has been found brutally murdered – her beaten and bloody body discovered in a locked temple. With rumours of dark spirits and political assassination, Drakenfeld has his work cut out for him trying to separate superstition from certainty. His determination to find the killer quickly makes him a target as the underworld gangs of Tryum focus on this new threat to their power.
Embarking on the biggest and most complex investigation of his career, Drakenfeld soon realises the evidence is leading him towards a motive that could ultimately bring darkness to the whole continent. The fate of the nations is in his hands.
When a fantasy novel is announced as a murder mystery set in a secondary world inspired by Ancient Rome *BOOM* I’m done and sold on reading said novel, especially if it’s written by an author whose work I’ve enjoyed before. Super sold on the book, I bought a signed copy at WFC and then, inexplicably, crickets. The book got waylaid by review copies and while I kept eyeing it, reading kept being put on the back-burner. The paperback release gave me the perfect excuse to finally read it. And I’m glad I did. I knew I enjoyed Mark Charan Newton’s writing, having read Nights of Villjamur and his short story in The Lowest Heaven, but Drakenfeld has made me kick myself for not reading City of Ruins, which is on my shelf, and his other Legends of the Red Sun books before. A situation which I’ll have to remedy sooner rather than later.
Drakenfeld is set in a Rome-inspired world, where the Royal Vispasian Union ensure peace and prosperity for its constituent monarchies. The world is familiar enough to allow easy entry, yet different enough to make it truly a secondary world fantasy. I love the ambiguity of some of the staple elements of fantasy worlds. There are many different gods and religion is important, but the priestly powers seem mundane, not god-given. There is mention of magic and witchcraft and the populace firmly believes in curses and augury available on most street corners. Yet there is no firm proof and due to Lucan’s rational and logical outlook on the wold, it’s never quite clear whether they are fake or whether Lucan is just too much of a sceptic to believe in them.
The narrator of the novel is the eponymous Lucan Drakenfeld. He’s an interesting character, the son who followed in his father’s footsteps, yet has been estranged from him for years. Like his father, he’s an agent of the Sun Chamber, a body of law enforcement that functions across the entire Vispasian Union and is integral to keeping the peace between its member states. This makes him not only a character with an interesting profession, but also one who has travelled the continent and as such brings something of an outsider’s view to the happenings in Tryum, despite having been born and raised there. I liked his thoughtful and peaceful nature— Drakenfeld abhors killing though he admits there is a time and place for it. He’s also somewhat prudish and arrogant, yet at the same time he sees those of the lower classes not as chattel or lesser beings, but as people in a more unfortunate position than himself and worthy of respect. He’s a complicated man, our Lucan Drakenfeld.
What makes his life even more complicated is the fact that he suffers from what we’d call epilepsy. His episodes are often preceded by specific smells or flashes of light, a phenomenon that is commonly known as aura. It’s interesting to see how these seizures influence Lucan’s functioning. There is a taboo on them and he tries to keep them hidden as much as he can. The only one who knows all about them is his closest companion, confidante, and bodyguard Leana. On the one hand he seems to consider his seizures a punishment of the gods as he prays to his goddess Polla to help him vanquish them, yet at the same time he and Leana seem aware it’s a medical condition and he even successfully consults with an apothecary for a remedy to at least assuage the number of seizures that plague him.
There are several important supporting characters in the book, but the most important are Leana, Senator Veron, and Lucan’s former lover Titiana. Leana is a fascinating character. She’s a woman of colour posted to a city where people often look down at people of colour, yet she holds her head high, defying their prejudice and proving herself superior in spirit and skill to all of them. Despite what we learn of her – she’s from Atrewe, she’s the sole survivor of her people who were massacred, she was married, she’s a brilliant warrior, and she’s fiercely loyal to Lucan – there is a sense that her story is yet largely untold and I look forward to learning more about her in future Drakenfeld books. One of the most entertaining characters in the book was Senator Veron, an old friend of Lucan’s late father, who takes him under his wing when he returns to Tryum. Veron is your quintessential hedonist; he drinks, he feasts, he sleeps around, he gambles. Yet despite all this I really liked him and his hedonism seems in part a front as Lucan notices his mask slipping a number of times and sees a far different, more serious man underneath. Titiana is an interesting character as a foil for Lucan. She uncovers some of his past and reveals to the reader some of what has made him into the man he is now.
The mystery in the book is a classic locked-room one and I found the way Newton structured his mystery very solid. I really enjoyed the sense of flusterment and desperation that overtakes Lucan about halfway through his investigation, when he’s running out of leads and facing increasing pressure from the king to solve his sister’s murder. Yet he manages to pull his chestnuts out of the fire and to do so without a deus-ex-machina intervention, but through old-fashioned legwork and deduction. With Leana to protect and assist him, Lucan makes his way through the city or Tryum and the labyrinthine twists of the murder plot in a very satisfying manner. I won’t go into the details any further, so as not to spoil anything, but trust me the resolution of this mystery is surprising and interesting.
With Drakenfeld Newton moves in a very different direction than his previous series, but the world and characters he creates are instantly compelling and very entertaining. I loved the details Newton inserted into his world building, such as the graffiti everywhere and the political structures not just of Tryum, but of the Vispasian Union over all. Drakenfeld is a wonderful start to the series and I can’t wait to read Lucan and Leana’s next adventure later this year in Retribution. If you enjoy smart, well-plotted historical fantasy, yet set in a secondary world then you shouldn’t miss out on Drakenfeld.