From the depths of a valley rises the city of Mahala.
a city built upwards, not across—where streets are built upon streets,
buildings upon buildings. A city that the Ministry rules from the sunlit
summit, and where the forsaken lurk in the darkness of Under.
Dizon doesn’t mind staying in the shadows, because he’s got things to
hide. Things like being a pain-mage, with the forbidden power to draw
magic from pain. But he can’t hide for ever.
Because when Rojan
stumbles upon the secrets lurking in the depths of the Pit, the fate of
Mahala will depend on him using his magic. And unlucky for Rojan—this is
going to hurt.
Fade to Black by Francis Knight (@Knight_Francis) is the first in a series set in a world where pain can power magic, and technology is still fairly new and strange. The city of Mahala is built in the typical ‘rich on top, poor down below’ arrangement that shoves the unlucky, or simply ‘undesirable’ people into what is literally the pit of this place. The Ministry, Mahala’s ruling class is supposed to look after its citizens, but in reality they are just as much a threat at the gangs and other criminals.
Into all this comes Rojan Dizon, a man who is happiest when womanizing and bounty hunting people who don’t run too far. Of course, even hitting on any woman with a pulse can’t go on forever, and Rojan finds out that his brother has been attacked, and the niece he’s never met was kidnapped. The tricky part is, Rojan’s brother has a few more secrets than expected, and the girl was taken below the city, to the places nobody wants to go and fewer return from.
The tone of Fade to Black is dark, fantasy, steampunk, with a dash of noir. Of course Rojan is going to have to venture into the underbelly of Mahala, and given his issues with using his ability to harness magic with pain - dislocation of a finger is a favorite method, even if Rojan favors using a little blood, minimal effort is his trademark early on in the book, that also has to be confronted.
The mistreatment of the poor factors largely in this book, and the use of women and girls as prostitutes, and tools in other forms is a tired plot device that is as apt to inspire disgust as it is exhaustion. Yes, the audience knows how vulnerable women can be, but it would be nice to see more of a comeuppance for the oppressors, rather than always having a male protagonist step in to save the day. More than that, having Rojan be largely unlikeable because he tells us everything he’s thinking, and undergoes little growth makes it hard to empathize with him. As this is the first book in a series, it’s likely that he will have more chances to make readers like him, and it would help it he stopped expecting ‘being kind of a decent guy’ to be something worth rewarding.
As an introduction to this world, Fade to Black is interesting, but the author relies too often on telling the audience things, rather than letting them figure it out, or showing them. With that quibble, the world building is promising, if further adventures continue to expand on the political dealings, and conflicts between magic and religion that are introduced in this book then Mahala and its characters will be a memorable addition to the genre.