(2009) Max Frei, Gollancz, £12.99, pbk, 544 pp, ISBN 978-0-5750-8976-1
Ah, right, now pay attention. Russian writer, Max Frei is the author of The Stranger and the best-selling Labyrinths of Echo series which stars a character, uh, called Max Frei. That might give a clue that we are in perhaps Kafkaesque territory here. Think China Mieville’s The City and the City, and maybe even a combination of Dr. Seuss and the Gormenghast trilogy. All of this might suggest that we are in good-company, but two’s company and three’s a crowd and while fantastic and ambitious The Stranger does not really work for me. Why doesn’t it work? Possibly the length – at 544 pages this is a big book, and I am well known as a reluctant reader. Possibly we are losing something in translation. The attempts at humour work at the start and then become a little wearing, so simply don’t work all the time – possibly it is back to the translation problem?
Another problem is that The Stranger is not really a novel, it is a collection of seven interconnected short stories. Another major problem is Max himself. You would think that someone called Max Frei writing about a character called Max Frei would do a better job of it, but Frei – the character – is not really that engaging, and seems to just allow things to happen to him. Yet making up for the lack of a strong leading character is the fantastic world that Frei has created. Think J. K. Rowling on acid, although the sheer inventiveness should not come as a surprise given that Max and his colleagues work for the Minor Secret Investigative Force. Worlds apart, Frei has also created a fantastic array of supporting characters to accompany him through his adventures in each of the seven stories such as Sir Juffin Hully, Sir Shurf Lonll-Lokli, Sir Manga Melifaro, and Lady Melamori Blimm. Belts that can control minds, dimension-hopping murderers, a prison cell that prisoners die in, haunted mirrors, haunted houses. There is so much, too much, more here.
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