WHEN JUSTICE FAILS, REVENGE FOLLOWS… Having just solved a difficult case in his home city of Tryum, Sun Chamber Officer Lucan Drakenfeld and his associate Leana are ordered to journey to the exotic city of Kuvash in Koton, where a revered priest has gone missing. When they arrive, they discover the priest has already been found – or at least parts of him have.
But investigating the unusual death isn’t a priority for the legislature of Kuvash; there’s a kingdom to run, a census to create and a dictatorial Queen to placate. Soon Drakenfeld finds that he is suddenly in charge of an investigation in a strange city, whose customs and politics are as complex as they are dangerous.
Kuvash is a city of contradictions; wealth and poverty exist uneasily side-by-side and behind the rich façades of gilded streets and buildings, all levels of depravity and decadence are practised.
When several more bodies are discovered mutilated and dumped in a public place, Drakenfeld realizes there’s a killer at work who seems to delight in torture and pain. With no motive, no leads and no suspects, he feels like he’s running out of options. And in a city where nothing is as it seems, seeking the truth is likely to get him killed…
Newton’s Drakenfeld works, his second secondary-world fantasy series, are heavily influenced by thinking about the Classical world, thinking he has done much of in public on his blog. As a Classicist, it appealed, and having found Drakenfeld an interesting, if at times frustratingly wrong, read, I inevitably picked up Retribution when it came out…
Retribution sees Drakenfeld taking up a new case in a new country in the Vispasian Royal Union. This time, it’s serial killer fair, in a rather Criminal Minds kind of way; brutal, sadistic killings, with no seeming connection, meaning Lucan and Leana have to put together the pieces to find the links and the motives. As in any TV procedural, each death provides more clues, and more clues mean getting closer to the killer; and throw in a coroner who really is ripped straight out of NCIS, and you have something of a cliche on the readers’ hands, albeit one altered by the setting. Indeed, the pressure from the queen, whose friends it is who are being murdered, takes the place of the traditional authority figure (sheriff, mayor), and Sulma Tan the role of the local cop who helps out and proves extremely useful. Newton doesn’t do anything original with this plot, replicated on the page beats we have seen time and again on screen, to the point of boredom and predictability, right down to the kind of motive involved.
The subplot swirling around the politics of Koton is more interesting. Retribution is very heavy-handed in its critique of the idea of social exclusion zones for the poor, and of the impossibility of forcing modernisation on a country; that heavy-handedness goes alongside the plodding statements about the dictatorial rule of the queen of Koton, and her circumvention of the democracy required by the union. However, where it gets more interesting is in the discussion of foreign relations; in a union of nations, what happens when one is destabilised by the prosecution of its king, and has an appetite for expansion? The build up to war, so reminiscent of 20th century history, is convincingly portrayed, one in which every side is suspicious of all others, paranoid about their own security, and taking measures to ensure their safety that actually inflame the tensions.
Retribution also rather falls down on its characterisation. Our two main characters get little character development – except for a single block infodump from Leana revealing her past, in a manner so heavy-handed and simple as to be actively annoying, especially as it doesn’t appear to actually change her relationship with Lucan; and the secondary characters are cliches lifted from other media. Sulma Tan, as mentioned above, is the local cop who helps the team and is very enthusiastic about police work; Nambu is the standard heart-of-gold princess discovering how the rest of society looks by being exposed to it; and Queen Dokuz Sorghatan is every benevolent tyrant you have ever read about combined with every pushy political officer demanding results from the police you’ve ever seen on screen.
What saves the book is good writing. Retribution may be unoriginal, but it is a good retelling of an old set of tropes; Newton’s first person narrative does breathe a certain new life into the hoary old cliches, with a style that is gripping and well-paced, while refusing to dwell on elements that don’t contribute to the story. At times, it feels a little stripped down, and at others (repetition of descriptions, or of Lucan’s reactions to discoveries and observations) a little flabby, but the simple approach taken really does draw the reader in and on despite all the problems.
Retribution isn’t up to the standard of Drakenfeld, and I hope Newton’s next venture into Vispasia takes Lucan and Leana out of the realm of detective show cliches, but it is still a fun and enjoyable book, if rather mindlessly so.