In Conversation: Sarah from BookWormBlues and I Discuss – City of Ruin

In Conversation: Where I ask another reader to delve a little deeper into a novel with me and see where the conversation goes.

I’ve been following Mark Charan Newton’s progress for a while now. I saw mention of his when he was first published by Pengradon Press but it was his first novel Nights of Villmajur that brought him the masses and I’ve got a mention in City of Ruin for my support of that book but I think the conversation below gives you an idea of why he’s an author worth reading.

I’m delighted that Sarah aka book blogger Bookworm Blues agreed to bounce some emails back and forth about City of Ruin.

Gav Starts:

I thought I’d kick off by talking about ‘issues’.

In your review you said:

I made a point in my review of Nights of Villjamur to note how I respected Newton for infusing his book with themes of social justice and sexuality and other aspects of that nature because they are close to my heart. Part of me was worried that he would relieve City of Ruin of those matters entirely, but he didn’t. Where I thought Newton was brave for inserting them into Nights of Villjamur, he should be given a metal of honor for his work in City of Ruin. Newton seems to make a point of making sexual politics, masculinity, ideas regarding violence, and even racism almost pivotal plot points where so much hinges on the perspectives of so many people regarding these issues. What is more impressive is that he doesn’t just insert this into his story, he discusses these ideas from the widely varying perspectives of main characters and even adds a religious viewpoint to the stew of ideas. This is amazingly brave (in my opinion), and even more compelling because many of these issues run parallel to issues in our own world.

He certainly packs a lot into CoR I was wondering if you thought that his injection of so many ‘issues’, especially at the beginning was in any way distracting as you read it? For me there was a small sense of seeing the introduction of a new character (or an old one in a new setting) and wondering what their thing was going to be. I guess Randur, Rika and Eir on the outside at least are the most normal characters. Is this lack or normality, if that’s what you see, something that is a bit of a blind spot here or am I being a little too sensitive?

Sarah Responds:

Before I should say anything in regards to your comment I should probably give a little background as to my perspective and how I’ve gained it. I have spent many of the past ten years working VERY intensely with nonprofit organizations in some of the most poor and destitute regions of the world. That kind of work has, and continues, to change my perspective on what “normal” is. In some regions of the world, “normal” is starving to death. If you look at the population placement in the world, you’ll see that a good chunk of the world’s population lives outside of developed nations. Even in the United States there are huge issues with poverty. Tons of children go to bed without dinner and the rest of us tend to be good at ignoring this because our lives are comfortable. Many people around me have no idea that poverty is a huge local issue.

Now, what does this have to do with City of Ruin?

I feel that Newton was very bold for focusing so much on social issues in his book, showing class divides and everything else. The world he created is a world thrust into the middle of a huge climate change and the people who inhabit it have to deal. I actually feel that his use of these social issues was rather brave. In any situation where there is a huge shift, whether climate, socially or otherwise, it’s going to ripple through the society and what was previously considered “normal” probably won’t exist anymore. It will serve to heighten these social issues and make them more apparent, while at the same time fundamentally altering how societies function. I felt that Newton was very honest with his portrayal of this. If, for example, he had written a book where there was a huge climate change happening but society trucked on as normal, I wouldn’t have been able to believe it. It just wouldn’t have been realistic in the setting the book takes place in.

Here’s an example of what I mean. I did Hurricane Katrina relief on the Gulf Coast for 6 months. I lived about 1 mile away from “ground zero.” About a week after I got there the host family I was living with took me on a drive of the town I was helping out. They drove me down the street to a parking lot and told me to get out of the car. I got out, unsure of what I was going to see. They pointed to the back of this dilapidated, totally destroyed church and said “look at those tents.” They were EVERYWHERE. Tents stretching as far as they eye could see, one right on top of the other (I should also mention these people had been living in tents for 2 months at this point). I was informed by my host family that this was the “millionaire” tent site. “All those people lived in multi-million dollar beach front mansions,” they said. “Now they live in tents and the poor people live in FEMA trailers.” No one batted an eye. That was normal for that horrible situation at that time. The poor people got the trailers. The rich people got the tents. That situation completely and absolutely skewed every societal sense of normal in that area. When I think of Newton’s books, I think of that situation because if someone had written about Hurricane Katrina any differently than Newton is writing about his own world, I wouldn’t have believed it and the dishonesty toward what I saw down in Mississippi probably would have infuriated me.

Now, that’s not to say that I don’t think some of this wasn’t inserted into the book needlessly, because there was quite a bit of focus on these issues where there didn’t necessarily need to be and I can see where it, perhaps, distracted from the overall sense of normalcy in the novel. I can also see how, to some, that might subtract from the overall enjoyment of the book(s) as a whole. However, referencing my previous experience in nonprofits, I must say that what I consider “normal” isn’t really normal, it’s just my perception of the world around me based on the comfort of my lifestyle. I think it’s rather brave for Newton to stir the pot and force people to, perhaps, see social issues as they affect people in his book. Perhaps it will help them transfer that perception to the world around them. I also felt that a lot of his focus on these issues helped develop a more multidimensional and believable culture in regards to the world changes taking place.

Perhaps this is something you’d like to comment on, but in fantasy it seems that, much of the time, issues that Newton so boldly deals with in his books often takes a back seat. These issues do often get mentioned, but usually only in passing, or in a way that is easy to forget. They never seem to play an important role in the plot (unless it has to deal with poverty or whoring, which are usually two common occurrences in fantasy). Part of me feels that Newton targeted these issues so openly in his books to raise real-world awareness of them. Do you feel that authors have an obligation to raise awareness towards issues like this (poverty, social justice, climate change and whatever else)? Do you think it is helpful for people to read about these issues in books like Newtons? Or do you feel that it is evangelizing and takes focus away from characterization, world building and plot development?

Gav Again:

I think you’ve pretty much nailed me to the wall there!

I was thinking of the mix of individual characters rather than the bigger picture, which I think as you’ve explained is actually more important. And you’re right I’d much rather see these issues raised than not addressed as in so many other fantasy novels that do lip service to the issues as you say without exploring and addressing them. And this came up on twitter conversation today the fact that fantasy is more or less in stasis in some ways and keeps going back to Tolkien and those he influenced.

Do you feel that authors have an obligation to raise awareness towards issues like this (poverty, social justice, climate change and whatever else)? Do you think it is helpful for people to read about these issues in books like Newtons? Or do you feel that it is evangelizing and takes focus away from characterization, world building and plot development?

Authors only obligation is to tell a story that works on it’s own terms. Now that could be something as something as simple as sticking to the expectations of a ‘sword & sorcery’ or throwing in a mix that will make a reader wonder what will happen next, which is exactly what happened to me when Newton kicked down the house of cards he had created in the first half. But there are different ways of dealing with politics and socially inclusion and he does stand out for his willingness to put these issues front and centre. And in some ways it’s easier to do in fantasy where the conventional is what ever you have made it. The trouble is that most authors don’t take advantage of the power they have in their own books.

I guess the the evangelising isn’t distracting but it might put some people off but then again those readers aren’t likely to read a story about a gay albino anyway. What has surprised and pleased me a lot is the positive reactions he’s been getting from readers and their acceptance of the circumstances in the characters.

What I was trying to say in some way is that by not giving a bit of light to a normal couple he’s exaggerating things a little too far. But then novels are a series of extremes and are seen as a mirror to certain things.

It’s a multithread story. I was wondering what character thread did you most enjoy? Did they take in directions you didn’t like or did you pretty much enjoy the ride? I’m asking because once the set up was done I just screamed and held on tight like a good roller coaster.

Sarah Says:

I agree with you regarding author’s obligations, and I also agree that many authors don’t realize the power they hold and the greater audience they can target with their books. I think Mark did a wonderful job at realizing the sheer power his book could have with exposing a large audience to a message, or messages he thought was important. On Twitter, I have seen him get pretty into the global warming issue and other environmental problems, so his deep and intense look at these concepts and ideas in his book(s) rings true to who he is. It is also pretty bold. I’m not sure how these things are in other parts of the world, but for some stupid reason global warming and many social justice issues he boldly discusses in Nights of Villjamur and City of Ruin are still debated topics in the States, or taboo to many. While I agree, many readers who will be offended or find these issues questionable won’t want to read his books, it’s still important to put these thoughts out there and expose them to the light of day.

One reason I asked the question about an authors obligation to address important issues in their work is because sometimes I feel that important messages can be best understood when they are situationally addressed. For example, I think Mark did a great job with his books in the way he presented his environmental and social issues that are very applicable to our reality, in a different world. This allowed him (in my opinion) to address important issues in a context that many wouldn’t find offensive, or like he’s beating them over the head with it. That seems to be a tactic many of my old college professors would use with issues they were trying to get students to understand. It made learning funner, but also helped us internalize important messages that we probably wouldn’t have found interesting, or wanted to hear much about unless they used that tactic to help us learn.

I do agree that his novels do seem to polarize issues and society a bit far, but in the context of what he’s trying to do and how the world is changing, I think that rings true.

It’s a multithread story. I was wondering what character thread did you most enjoy? Did they take in directions you didn’t like or did you pretty much enjoy the ride? I’m asking because once the set up was done I just screamed and held on tight like a good roller coaster.

To answer your questions, by and large I sat back and just enjoyed the ride. The storyline I had the hardest time with was in the first book with Randur Estevu. He was too pretty, to polished and too “typical fantasy” to really fit fully into the world Newton had created. I also had a hard time getting into Jeryd’s storyline, but once I did I was really addicted to him. Brynd was rather natural for me to enjoy reading about.

If you’ve read Nights or City please chime with with your thoughts and if not does the above make you want to read either?  Or does a book which addresses so many uncomfortable issues put you off? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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