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Friday, April 3, 2009

“The Stranger” by Max Frei (Reviewed by Robert Thompson)

Official Max Frei Website
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AUTHOR INFORMATION: Max Frei is the author of the international bestselling Labyrinths of Echo series starring a character named Max Frei, as well as books on literature and art. He is also the pen name of Svetlana Martynchik, a Russian artist of Ukrainian origin.

ABOUT THE STRANGER: Max Frei’s novels have been a literary sensation in Russia since their debut in 1996, and have swept the fantasy world over. Presented here in English for the first time, “The Stranger” will strike a chord with readers of all stripes:

Max was a loser and social outcast who could only sleep during the day. But then he got lucky. In his dreams he contacts a parallel world where magic is a daily practice. Transported to Echo, the capital of that parallel world, Max becomes a member of the Minor Secret Investigative Force, a group of enchanted secret agents whose job is to solve cases more extravagant and unreal than one could imagine—a journey that will take Max down the winding paths of a strange and unhinged universe…

FORMAT/INFO:The Stranger” is 544 pages long divided over seven titled chapters and is translated from Russian by Polly Gannon. Narration is in the first-person exclusively via the protagonist Max. Instead of a traditional beginning, middle and end, “The Stranger” reads like a series of seven interconnected short stories. “The Stranger” is merely the first book in The Labyrinths of Echo series, so Max’s adventures are far from over.

April 2, 2009 marks the North American Hardcover publication of “The Stranger” via
The Overlook Press. The UK version will be published May 21, 2009 via Gollancz.

ANALYSIS: Max Frei’sThe Stranger” is an interesting novel to say the least. For starters, I almost gave up on the book at three different times. Why? Well for one, it took a long while before the book started making sense to me, especially the setting, the story and the novel’s direction. It took even longer for me to get used to “The Stranger’s” peculiar brand of humor, not to mention the author’s liberal use of exclamation points. And finally, I just wasn’t able to connect with the protagonist Max, which was particularly galling since the entire novel is written from Max’s point-of-view, although I did eventually get over it. In short, I feel “The Stranger” is not the kind of book that readers will be able to delve into and immediately enjoy. Instead, it will take time to get used to the novel’s many idiosyncrasies, but if readers can accomplish that, then “The Stranger” will reward you…

To begin with, “The Stranger” is incredibly imaginative bolstered by an undeniable charm—think Harry Potter meets Dr. Seuss. In fact, I believe the book’s most striking attribute is its creativeness—a creativeness that extends throughout the entire city of Echo and the world beyond and includes all of its inhabitants, traditions (sleeping on floor beds, houses with 5-6 bathrooms is considered the norm, etc.) and more mundane things like the mode of dress, everyday expressions (Sinning Magicians!), transportation (amobilers), narcotics (Soup of Repose), and food (Jubatic Juice, kamra, Eliixer of Kaxar, Chakatta Pie). Other intriguing ideas include Silent Speech, self-inscribing tablets, buriwoks (talking birds with prodigious memories that act as a form of library or computer), their version of a prison, cats raised as livestock, the rituals they follow when another year ends, and the Quarter of Trysts where one-night stands are left to fate. Plus so many other wonderful ideas that it would require me writing a book just to cover them all :)

The Stranger’s” second best attribute is the characters which goes hand-in-hand with the book’s humor. Of the former, every single character that appears in “The Stranger”—apart from Max—is marked by a delightful name and a distinctive trait, but the most interesting characters by far are Max’s co-workers in the Minor Secret Investigative ForceSir Juffin Hully, Most Venerable Head; Sir Shurf Lonli-Lokli, Master Who Snuffs Out Unnecessary Lives; Sir Manga Melifaro, Diurnal Representative of the Most Venerable Head; Sir Kofa Yox, Master Eavesdropper; Lady Melamori Blimm, Master of Pursuit of the Fleeing and Hiding; and Sir Lookfi Pence, Master Keeper of Knowledge. What makes these characters so interesting, apart from their charming names and personalities, is their interactions with one another and with Max, which consists of incessant banter and inside jokes like Max pretending to be from the Barren Lands, making fun of the incompetent General Boboota Box, and the differences between our world and theirs:

Well, this is nothing very exciting. Just a female dog. And this . . . how should I say it, Shurf—a man who is undeserving of respect and who has serious problems with the plumbing in his backside. It’s a word that describes stupid people, although the root is directly connected to the process of reproduction.

Now this expression may be used interchangeably with the straightforward human expression ‘go away’, but it makes the one on the receiving end doubt his own ability to procreate. And this is a kind of animal, and at the same time a man who is undeserving of respect, and who has problems with his back passage…"
Max on explaining a few choice cuss words to Sir Lonli-Lokli.

Once I got used to the book’s particular sense of humor, I had quite a few laughs and was reminded a bit of Mike Resnick’s amusing John Justin Mallory tales. The comedic moments don’t always work though. One reason is because there’s just so much of it that some stuff like the banter and ongoing jokes start wearing thin. Another reason is that some of the jokes just flew over my head, partly because of the author’s Russian roots and partly because of the translation like a few expressions that I didn’t get at all: “I’ll step on the throat of any song.” “A vampire under your blanket.”

As for Max, I’m not sure I’ve ever read a first-person narrative that was so lacking in intimacy. For example, what kind of person was Max before he came to Echo? I mean, we’re told that he was a loser, that he hated his life, slept during the day instead of at night, and was a vivid dreamer, but you never really understand what kind of person Max was, nor how he adapted to life in Echo, and so on. Because of this lack of intimacy, it’s just really hard to connect with Max as our narrator, especially at the beginning of the book when readers are suddenly thrust into the world of Echo with little explanation as to how or why Max got there. Heck, the story of how Max came to Echo isn’t even related until 200 pages in, while certain personality traits like being addicted to cigarettes, being afraid of heights and being a neurotic are just casually thrown into the book at seemingly random points. Fortunately, what Max lacks in intimacy is more than made up by his strong supporting cast and the interesting things that constantly happen to him, like being able to perform incredible feats of magic—a lot of the times without him even knowing about it—possessing amazing luck and intuition that is very helpful with whatever case he’s working on, and his physiognomy undergoing strange changes such as turning into a vampire or acquiring the ability to kill a person with his spit…

Story-wise, “The Stranger” follows the exploits of Sir Max and the Minor Secret Investigative Force—here I kept thinking of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson—and is divided into seven chapters, each of which focuses on a case and acts as a separate short story, but is connected overall. In “Debut in Echo”, readers are introduced to Max, Echo, Sir Juffin Hully, Sir Melifaro, Sir Lonli-Lokli, and Max’s very first case which involves murder and a haunted mirror. In “Juba Chebobargo and Other Nice Folks”, we meet the rest of the Minor Secret Investigative Force and follow Max on a case that somehow includes a haunted house, a string of unexplained robberies and dolls. In “Cell No. 5-OW-NOX”, Max travels with Sir Lonli-Lokli to the prison Xolomi to solve the mystery of a particular prison cell where prisoners keep dying. In “The Stranger”, Max must stop a murderer from our world who inadvertently traveled to Echo. In “King Banjee”, it’s nearly the end of the year and Max is handed a strange case of an innkeeper who was transformed into a giant piece of meat. In “Victims of Circumstance”, Max and Lady Melamori find themselves embroiled in a heartbreaking love quandary while solving the case of mind-control belts. Finally, in “Journey to Kettari”, Max is disguised as a woman and travels with Sir Lonli-Lokli to find out what happened to Sir Hully’s home city Kettari.

CONCLUSION: Max Frei’sThe Stranger” was a hard novel to get into, and it took a lot of patience and determination on my part to keep reading the book, but I’m very glad that I did so. Because once I got past the confusing beginning, was able to understand the structure of the novel, and became comfortable with “The Stranger’s” various idiosyncrasies, I couldn’t put the book down. And now that I know what to expect, I can’t wait to return to Echo and read more of Max’s adventures! In the end, in spite of the book’s problems, I can easily see why The Labyrinths of Echo has enjoyed so much praise and success, and I strongly urge anyone who is a fan of imaginative fiction to give Max Frei’sThe Stranger” a try…


Tia Nevitt said...

I've just read the opening chapters so far, and I'm having the same problems that you had. I put up a progress report at Fantasy Debut today; I'll link to this blog entry.

ediFanoB said...

I read the whole German edition in 2007.

This is one of these books which you either like or not.
I don't like it. The story is chewy and the humor promised in the blurb didn't work for me.

Liviu said...

I agree with the above posts here; the book has promise and some lines that were funny, but overall I just could not care less for the narrator, the setting and anything else; I tried to move forward and see if anything appeals later, but it was the same.

This kind of book - eg Jonathan Barnes 2 novels are another example - which I would categorize as "fantasy fabulism" is indeed a "take it or leave it" - the humor and weirdness work or do not work for someone and the book hangs on that.

However the series is at 10 volumes currently as far as I know, so lots of people liked it :)

Patrick said...

Glad that you ended up liking it, as The Stanger is on my "books to read" pile. Moreover, I'm hosting a giveway and will post an excerpt next week!

Thanks for the review!

Anonymous said...

I realle like it,cause i read this book in russian, and it is really hard to translate some jokes, ans some phrases. so, if you really want to enjoy this book/ it's better to read its original

Simoroshka said...

it's a pity that the translator doesn't know that russian "x" sounds like "h", not like eng "x" or "ch". Looxi, Xolomi, Rulx, Chuff and so on - i'm crying, i'm very sad. Half of jokes is removed, another half isn't jokes anymore. Sad, very sad.

Anonymous said...

Yes, i guess the translation can kill half of fun with this book, but even that is left should be enough to like it a lot...Also another thing is that for me at least the first book is the weakest among the series and it becomes better and better with newer ones...Also, its not only humor that this book contains, there will be some difficult choices to be made for the hero, and some interesting concepts for the readers...Anyway read it and even if you dont know russian you should still enjoy it...
Though translation apparently suxx ;__;

The Mad Hatter said...

I agreed with you on some of the ideas and parts of the world, but overall I was severely disappointed. I just posted my review for anyone interested.

Anonymous said...

I've read the spanish edition.
The next volume is really good. I like it a lot. You can have a lot of fun with an interesting story. Now I'm waiting for the third book but I think it's not in spanish, so I would read it in english or german.
Max Frei needs a little bit of effort to read his books but if you can... they're the best.

Vilmantė Apytiksliai said...

Manga Melifaro is father of Melifaro, who has no name at all.
Lithuanian translation was very nice, jokes were amusing, loved book from first page.
Cant wait for next book get published.

Anonymous said...

I have really enjoyed this book. I can't wait for the next to be released in Australia

johnny said...

enjoyed this book when is the next volume to be realeased in australia

Anonymous said...

Hm, Sir Manga Melifaro is the father of Melifaro in Minor Secret Investigative Force. Sir Manga wrote The Great Encyclopedia)

Artem said...

Dear all,

I read the book in Russian and fully agree with the reviewer. I was bored for the better part of the first book. However, please please just soldier through and get to the last story about Ketari. The subsequent six books only get better and better, I promise that you'll get hooked! The last four stories of the Labyrinth are truly masterpieces. While the plot is intricate, there will not be a "Lost" ending, everything will make perfect sense.
After Labyrinth I would advise you to read "Encyclopedia from A to Z". This is also a book about Max Frei and his adventures.

Anonymous said...

“A vampire under your blanket” is a playful curse that reads as "May a ghoul creep into your bed". “I’ll step on the throat of any song” is actually "I'll strangle my song" which means "I'll restrain myself". Well, translating humor is not at all that easy, and a joke may be lost to the readers not only as the result of a translator's blunder.

The comic effect in the original text of The Stranger is largely based on the contrast of high literary words (which makes us conclude Max is a well-read young fellow) and the freedom with wich he treats them, alongside with screamingly colloquial phrases and author's self-invented hilarious swear words. This reflects Max Frei's genuine philisophy - a laid-back and open attitude to life, whereas the translation reads all too smoothly and seriously. It's the atmosphere and the general tone of the book the translator failed to grasp.

Anyway, as it has aready been mentioned above, every next book of the series gets "curiouser and curiouser". So I'll definitely give it a chance.

Unknown said...

Totally agreed with previous comment. I read it in original, and I think the most fun part of the book is it's atmosphere and very bright positive heroes. Because of that you don't need to know all about the heroes - it's a joy just to watch them, though all the blank spot's will be clarified sooner or later, and you'll be surprised)
It's a pity that translation is ruining almost all fun - it's not a jokes, it's a way of representation.

avis613 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I have to say i disagree with most of the comments here as well as the original post. Ever since i first picked up The Stranger I was totally engrossed in the spectacular voice and extraordinary adventures of Max and have experienced no confusion at all. I think it's just a matter of having an open literary mind and a willingness to experience new things. I do have to say that The Stranger is unlike anything i've ever read before. Since i have been an inverterate fantasy reader for the longest time it was easy for me to adjust to reading about an unknown world. I think that most of the confusion experienced may be due to this.

Anonymous said...

i wish the foreigners could understand this lively irony, bright positive story that makes me feel better even if i had a bad day,,,,i was always hoping that would be one day that it would be translated , in a good way.

JustWondering said...

This was amazing. The humour was friggin incredible! I dug it.
This coming from an epic fantasy/antihero enthusiast. I have never been for comic relief in fantasy (Terry Pratchett for instance) I have to admit Mr. Frei's artistic ability is most entertaining. I am an enthused fan of series like The belgariad by David Eddings, The kingkiller chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss among others hopefully those two will be able to act as a good base when you ask the question, "He might like this novel but will I?"

It was Grrrrreat!

Anonymous said...

I have read this book (and others) many times. Again and again...
First paragraphs were hard to read because it was "ok, what the hell is going on??" but after that I understood something and then it was really easy to read that book.
All jokes were funny, I think it's because of Lithuanian humor - it is easy to translate those jokes because sometimes they are the same in our country (or maybe similar, 'cuz I understood all jokes you didn't).

Anonymous said...

Well I just LOVED this book!!! And not just it! All the book in the series are interesting.
A lot of readers might have the problem of understanding who Max really is or what happened to him before Echo. The first book is like a preparation for the action ahead and to the truth.
So to really understand this plot you have to go all the way to the end.
And when you finally get there, then, and only then will you understand what was really happening to Max.

silverwoof said...

There are books worth reading and reading again and again.
In general I don't like reading book second time. Max Frei books are the only exception - the first book "Stranger" I have read 4 times and now I am reading it 5th time :)

Every time I read the more enjoyment I get :) I started to think that I should learn Russian that I could read this book in native language...

Anonymous said...

"The Stranger" is really exiting book. I like it. I read this book on russian, and now I can say, that translate kill all humor, this book has become boring. So, now people, who can read only english language say, that they don't like "The Stranger". It is very sad, becouse this book is very nice, and it can become the world bestseller.
Sorry for my bad english

Anonymous said...

I think people who read the book in English may have found it boring because it heavily relies on the particulars of Russian language, its idioms, slang, wordplay. Many jokes would be impossible to translate, in direct translation they make no sense whatsoever. Also, the interpreter doesn't seem overly competent...I think it is also because of the different levels of formality used in Russian and English that the book might seem a bit too wordy as everyday conversation in English is a lot more informal and simplified than the Russian one.


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