Stranger by Max Frei

The Stranger

The Labyrinths of Echo book 1
a review by Steve Cameron

Max Frei is the Stranger: a slacker, a loner and the narrator of this novel, has dreams of another world, a city named Echo and a man named Sir Juffin Hully, the head of The Department of Absolute Order. All very entertaining, until the dreams become reality and he arrives in Echo, where he becomes a secret agent and expected to police the use of both illegal and legal magic and to solve impossible crimes.

Armed only with his wits and a few magical powers even he seems unaware of, he delves into this world, finding himself happier in this fantasy dream world than he ever was in his own. Passing himself off as coming from the Barren Lands in order to account for his strange accent and behaviours, he not only must adapt to the local customs, but become used to telepathic communication and a culture where magic is the norm.

I found The Stranger a difficult one to get into, and had to make three attempts to pass the first fifty pages. The writing was fine (although it obviously suffers from being a translation from the original Russian), the created world intriguing enough, and the character’s names interesting and colourful (Sir Shurf Lonli-Lokli and the Lady Melamori, for example). I still can’t put my finger on why I found it so difficult. Perhaps it’s the slightly odd language style and extended dialogue that propels the narrative. But I’m glad I persevered and finished it.

This book seems to draw comparisons with everything; Dr. Suess, Harry Potter, Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Thursday Next, Discworld and old pulp fiction novels to name a few. And I can see why.

There is definitely a humour behind this writing, but I feel it loses something in translation, and there are most definitely commentaries occurring on both post and pre Glasnost Russian politics.

This is a novel that will polarise readers. Personally I enjoyed it, although it wasn’t what I expected from either the blurb or recommendations.

Originally published in Dark Matter issue 5, September 2011.  This post has been pre-dated to reflect the original publication date.