Francis Knight’s debut novel, Fade to Black, is the first book in the Rojan Dizon trilogy. Fade to Black was released last month, and the rest of the trilogy will be available by the end of this year. The second book, Before the Fall, is scheduled for release in June, and the third book, Last to Rise, is scheduled for release in November.
Magic is not appreciated in the towering city of Mahala. It was once used to power the city until the substance synth was developed, removing the need to depend on magic practitioners, who often went mad and caused chaos. The mage king was overthrown and beheaded by the Ministry, and mages in Mahala went into hiding—-or worse, were sent to the ‘Pit when discovered.
Rojan Dizon is a licensed bounty hunter who uses his forbidden pain magic to locate people, mostly petty criminals and runaways. After a particularly difficult job capturing and returning a clever teenage alchemist to her parents, Rojan returns to the office to discover a message from his brother Perak. This is unexpected since Rojan and Perak parted on bad terms nearly 8 years ago, and the two have not been in touch since. After Rojan last saw him, Perak has made a great invention and risen to the rank of Cardinal, married, and had a daughter. Perak contacts Rojan because he needs his skills at finding people: Perak himself was shot, his wife was shot and killed, and his daughter was kidnapped by the gunmen.
Despite the rift between him and his brother, Rojan doesn’t hesitate to agree to find his missing niece—and continues this quest even after discovering the Ministry appears to be involved somehow. Rojan’s gut is telling him he’ll find his niece in the ‘Pit and his magic confirms this, leading him to devise a way to get into the lowest part of the city, find her, and return her to her father as quickly as possible.
While Fade to Black is a mildly entertaining book, the story, writing, characterization, and plot are not particularly well done or unique, and there is nothing that makes it a book that demands to be read when there are so many other books to read. It’s a fast-paced, dark-toned book told from the perspective of a narrator who is rough around the edges and trying to survive in a corrupt city. The setting is promising with the physical structure of the city, its history, and the combination of fantasy and dystopia, but it also has a lot of basic similarities to other settings in speculative fiction. (Of course, this is the first book of three, so it’s entirely possible that this was just an introduction and it will be explored in more depth later!)
The strongest element of Fade to Black is the development of the city of Mahala and its rule by the Ministry. The highest people are in the “Clouds,” looking down on those below them. In fact, everyone looks down on those below them, and the city’s structure quite literally represents the highest and the lowest. The Ministry have controlled everything since removing the king, from controlling magic to supplying synth to replace the use of magic. Once it was learned that synth killed people, they replaced it with the mysterious and less effective substance Glow. Magic does come with a price since it’s bought with pain, though it doesn’t have to be the magic user’s own suffering. Even aside from that, magic can cause mages to go insane and Rojan fears giving in and letting magic control him more than he does the pain, though he doesn’t particularly like that aspect of it, either. I enjoy seeing balances in systems so I really liked that magic use required sacrifice, but at the same time, I’ve read books with similar disadvantages to practicing magic. Likewise, the city under the thumb of the corrupt government is not a new concept, and while it was intriguing on the surface, there wasn’t enough depth to make it truly stand apart from all the other books utilizing this same type of idea.
Likewise, Rojan was a fairly typical character having commonalities with many others in books I’ve read before—the flawed type with a jaded past and tough exterior that appears to be hiding a decent person underneath in some ways. He’s had a difficult past, and his present is also difficult since he has to hide his abilities in order to survive. He acts tough, but he also seems like a product of his struggles and harsh environment since he also seems to be a bit softer than he’d like to admit. At the beginning of the book, he captures a teenage runaway and he’s not immune to sympathy with her plight when she begs him not to return her to her family. Having met her terrible parents, Rojan cannot blame her. He does tend to think about following his own rules of survival first, and he does return her to her family in the end since her father is an important person in the Ministry who could make his life quite miserable. Yet, he also realizes she’s clever enough to escape again, and before he returns her and collects his money, he shows her where she can go the next time she runs away. He also has rules that apply to not harming others, such as not using other people’s pain for his magic, and he doesn’t always follow his practical rules for remaining alive. Rojan doesn’t hesitate to help his estranged brother when there’s a chance he may be able to recover his daughter for him, despite the great risk to himself. That said, he’s not completely sympathetic since he is a womanizer who doesn’t treat the women he’s dating very well (such as, informing any of them of the existence of the others or seeming to really care about any one of them). The other characters seem rather one-note, with the more developed ones being influenced by their pasts with one or two motivating forces.
Fade to Black was a diverting, quick read, but it didn’t offer me anything numerous other books could not. The setting was intriguing, but it also wasn’t developed enough to truly shine. The gritty noir feel and rough-around-the-edges main character also seemed like elements I’d read many times before. Fade to Black was not a bad way to spend some time, but it was not a book that made me take notice or made me want to continue reading the series.
My Rating: 5/10
Where I got my reading copy: ARC from the publisher.
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