I believe in cash, and that men aren’t made for monogamy, that there isn’t a woman alive I can’t get into bed if I try hard enough, and never cross the Ministry. Shit like that. I believe them like crazy.

 

The city of Mahala is built upwards and its populace spread across different levels. The sunlit summit is for the rich, privileged ruling class, called the Ministry. The levels below are for all the rest, and the lower one goes the poorer–and darker–it gets.

Somewhere in-between the highest and the lowest levels lives protagonist Rojan Dizon, a thoroughly content, self-proclaimed womanizer, pain mage and bounty hunter who likes both his cash and his women to be as easy as possible. His life is shaken to the core when his estranged brother asks for Rojan’s help tracking down his kidnapped daughter. All of a sudden Rojan is faced with responsibility, and when evidence suggests that his niece has been taken down below, Rojan embarks on a journey that will lead to great change–for him and Mahala itself.  

Fade to Black is a formulaic noir-ish dark fantasy novel with futuristic dystopian elements. The former subgenre is exemplified in Rojan’s activities as a bounty-hunter/detective who dons the role of Reluctant Hero as he travels the underbelly of his own world. Been there, done that so many times, I saw most plot developments a mile ahead. The latter is probably the most distinctively original aspect of the novel: a futuristic world that hints to a calamitous event that set technology back many years; a world in which guns have just been invented and in which there is no electricity. This dystopian element stems from the ruling class of Mahala, as the Ministry is a brand of Government-cum-Priesthood that purportedly acts on the will of an all-seeing Goddess. Most of the rules that govern this world are born of religious ideas and are strictly enforced following a recent revolution (which greatly reminded me of Cromwell’s Commonwealth reforms).    

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Now, whilst the setting itself is distinctive and interesting, I am afraid the same cannot be said about Fade to Black’s character development–which is SO dull and done by means of Angst by Repetition. You know the type: the main character goes over and over the reasons he is feeling bad, or the reasons why he should not be doing something. Most egregiously, we are told–many, many times–rather than shown how Rojan feels about everything. Everything about Rojan’s arc is extremely contrived, paint-by-numbers and telegraphed from the onset of the book. The more he tells us he doesn’t care about anything, the more we know that this will obviously lead to him caring a lot–especially after he falls in insta-love with Jake, an emotionally damaged woman who earns her living with stage fights.

Although there is certainly an element of unreliability in his first-person narrative, as Rojan doesn’t admit certain things to himself (for example, how powerful a mage he truly is and how therefore he is in fact, a Special Snowflake), the fact is that this comes as no surprise at all to any reader familiar with the tropes of Dark Fantasy. There is clearly an attempt to make Rojan into a likeable character, especially after he has been changed by the Power of Unrequited Love–but the problem is that it is very difficult to sympathize with him because his suffering is only brought upon by how bad he feels about other people’s very real misery.       

Which brings me to my last point: I cannot finish this review without mentioning a very problematic aspect of the novel. Please avert your eyes NOW if you don’t want to be spoiled!

In his travels, Rojan comes to find out Mahala’s biggest secret: that the city is literally powered by pain. Kids are kidnapped and horribly tortured for years, and this pain is harvested by pain-mages to use as fuel to keep the city running. Now, here is the twist: the kids taken are girls. And only girls. How does this make any sense at ALL? Pain is pain, so why only girls? Is a female’s pain better by any chance and I missed the memo? WHY. Why do I even need to be bringing this up at all? This is an internalized, unchecked misogynist aspect of the novel that did not sit well with me at all.    

Needless to say, Fade to Black will probably fade from my mind the minute I finish this review.

In Booksmugglerish: an unremarkable 5 out of 10.   

Thea James and Ana Grilo are The Book Smugglers, a website for speculative fiction and YA. You can find also find them at Twitter.