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Friday, May 27, 2011

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

Order “The Stranger’s WoesHERE (US) + HERE (UK)
Read FBC’s Review of “The Stranger

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Max Frei is a pen name for Svetlana Martynchik. As Max Frei, she is the author of the international bestselling The Labyrinths of Echo series, of which over two million copies have sold in Russia alone. She also writes books on literature and art, still untranslated. The author lives in Moscow.

ABOUT THE STRANGER’S WOES: The Stranger’s Woes continues the story of twenty-something loser Max Frei. A loafer who sleeps all day, Max one night finds himself transported to the magical world of Echo, where he possesses magical abilities and becomes the Nocturnal Representative of the Most Venerable Head of the Minor Secret Investigative Force of the City of Echo.

With his new friends and co-workers—the omniscient Sir Juffin Hully, the hilarious Melifaro and the beautiful Lady Melamori BlimmSir Max enjoys a life where he’s no longer a social outcast as he solves crimes, battles illegal magic and fights trespassing monsters from other worlds. Now in The Stranger’s Woes, Max will encounter cases more complicated, extravagant and dangerous than ever before in this strange and topsy-turvy universe...

FORMAT/INFO: The Stranger’s Woes is 416 pages long divided over three titled chapters, with each chapter serving as a self-contained short story/novella that is interconnected with the series as whole. Narration is in the first-person exclusively via the protagonist Max. The Stranger’s Woes is the second book in The Labyrinths of Echo series, which consists of ten volumes. In order to understand what is happening in The Stranger’s Woes, it is highly recommended that readers finish The Stranger before starting the second book.

June 9, 2011 marks the North American Hardcover publication of “The Stranger’s Woes” via The Overlook Press. The English edition is translated from Russian by Polly Gannon and Astamur Moore. The UK version (see below) will be published on June 30, 2011 via Gollancz.

ANALYSIS: It may have taken me a long while to become acclimated to the quirky humor, characters, setting, story structure and other idiosyncrasies found in Max Frei’s The Stranger, but once I did, the book was impossible to put down and I finished the novel immediately hungering for another helping of Sir Max’s adventures. For the most part, The Stranger’s Woes served up exactly what I was craving for...

Comprised of three chapters/short stories, The Stranger’s Woes continues Max’s entertaining adventures as the Nocturnal Representative of the Most Venerable Head of the Minor Secret Investigative Force of the City of Echo. This time around, Max gets to deal with undead bandits, representatives from the empire of Arvarox who are seeking a dangerous fugitive, zombies who refuse to die, and becoming trapped on Earth. Max also gets to meet His Majesty King Gurig VIII for the first time; develops a new love interest in Tekki Shekk, the proprietor of a bar named after Max’s cats; is declared the king of Max’s supposed homeland in the Barren Lands; visits General Boboota Box’s home; serves as Sir Juffin Hully’s temporary replacement; develops new abilities (Lethal Spheres, tracking someone through their trace, traveling through the Doors between Worlds); makes some new acquaintances (Anday Pu, Rulen Bagdasys, Aloxto Allirox, Lieutenant Chekta Jax, Lady Kekki Tuotli); and introduces Echo to the marvelous invention that is movies.

Now because I was already familiar with the author’s writing style and the tone of the series which was established in the first book, I was able to pick up The Stranger’s Woes and start enjoying myself right from the get go. This familiarity was aided by how much the book shares with The Stranger, including the same humor and running jokes (Max’s laziness and voracious appetite), the same supporting cast (Sir Juffin Hully, Sir Shurf Lonli-Lokli, Sir Manga Melifaro, Sir Kofa Yox, Lady Melamori Blimm), the same imaginative world with its strange customs, the same story structure, and so on.

The downside to all of this is that The Stranger’s Woes doesn’t really offer anything different from its predecessor. In fact, you could take the three stories found in The Stranger’s Woes, insert them in The Stranger, and no one would be able to tell the difference. Sure, the cases are new, but characters and relationships remain largely static, and there aren’t any major overarching conflicts or subplots to help drive the story, apart from Max & Melamori’s love quandary and vague hints toward other complications. For now, this isn’t a major issue with eight more volumes to go, but at some point, The Labyrinths of Echo needs to do more than just have Sir Max solve crimes for the Minor Secret Investigative Force.

Other minor complaints include jokes that fail to translate properly or are painfully outdated—in Max’s world, VCRs are still the primary method for playing movies at home—and a first-person narrative that remains detached, although the third chapter/short story (The Volunteers of Eternity) does offer some interesting insight into Max’s life before Echo.

Aside from these issues, The Stranger’s Woes is another wildly imaginative and entertaining entry in The Labyrinths of Echo, which I enjoyed almost as much as I did the first book. However, I hope the story and characters are developed much further in the remaining sequels, otherwise, the series could get stale and repetitive very quickly...


Doug M. said...

Woo Hoo! I was just thinking about "The Stranger" recently and wondering if they were ever going to get around to translating any of the other volumes.

The first was quirky and unique... and I read it when I was looking for something quirky and unique.

Robert said...

If you liked the first book Doug, then you should definitely enjoy "The Stranger's Woes" since it's basically more of the same...

Anonymous said...

Great review!
I've read all the books in Russian, and was interested to see what people think of the English translation. :)

The characters and stories become more and more interesting as the series goes on. I really hope that the rest of the books are translated eventually..

Robert said...

Thanks Anonymous! I hope as well that the rest of the series gets translated :D

sanych said...

A modest and honest review I believe. I have also read the whole series in the original. Did not enjoy it in the very beginning but then eventually got sucked into it.
After the end of the "official" Stranger series the author actually continued to write "standalone" stories about Echo (and still does, the latest one showed up in 2010) told by other characters. (I am just mentioning it to address reviewer's concerns)

I am rereading it now in English and enjoying the book again. 8^) Have fun everybody!

Anonymous said...

Hello everybody!
Most of what I have to say was already said by Sanych)))
Except I enjoyed all books of both cycles :)
I cannot quite agree with the statement that nothing moves or develops in the books or in Max's personality. Max matures with each book, and learns his lessons which are many.

What I like most about Max Frei series, is that while you are reading it, it might look like a fantasy story although really "quirky and unique", but there are very deep thoughts sprinkled here and there, and lots of things to think about as you read.

golergka said...

I've read the books about 10-14 years ago (in russian), and — you'll be surprised. (Overall series mood spoilers ahead.) The first books establish the world and characters, but the ending of the series will bring something quite more serious, ending with a real existential dread and some of the most surreal prose I've ever read — but brilliant nevertheless.


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