If Harry Potter smoked cigarettes and took a certain matter-of-fact pleasure in administering tough justice, he might like Max Frei, the protagonist of this fantasy novel.
Author Frei is a Russian whose books have been bestsellers in his homeland for the last dozen years. Frei, this novel’s protagonist, is something of a dissolute slacker who once spent his nights smoking, eating and loafing, his days sleeping. When Sir Juffin Hully (who looks like Rutger Hauer’s older brother, though, Frei suggests, “try to augment his striking image with a pair of light, slightly slanting eyes”) comes into Frei’s life, he acquires a new sense of purpose. Frei has always been a dreamer, and now he has reason to wander between Worlds and see what kind of mischief he can find. Hully is a masterpiece of Potterian eccentricity, and then some, and the tone of the book often has a Potterian charm, though there’s an undercurrent of post–Cold War espionage in the mix; indeed, Frei, a onetime resident of the backwaters of empire transposed to the Heart of the World, reminds us that the barren borderlands house “the most diverse, sometimes extraordinarily powerful people, and not just wild barbarians,” which seems a very Russian thing to inject into the proceedings. Inspired by such characters as the Master Who Snuffs Out Unnecessary Lives, a survivor of the Troubled Times, a habitué of places like the Murky Market and the House by the Bridge, and familiar with the deleterious effects the Elixir of Kaxar has on his countrymen, Frei does his bit to keep the world safe from malevolent magicians and conspiratorial spirits. And if the book is more talk than action, that talk is reliably entertaining, frequently double-edged and nicely idiosyncratic (“I’m off to do something meaningless, as you suggest. That’s what I do best”).
Well-written, well-paced grown-up fantasy with a strong dose of reality.