Thursday, April 09, 2009

SF/F: The Stranger by Max Frei

Before I say anything else I have to tell you that I’ve never looked forward to the publication of a book more than I did Max Frei’s The Stranger (Overlook). It’s been such a long time coming. I’ve been hearing about it for years but, in retrospect, it felt like whispers of things. Rumors from other lands. Something well imagined that could not possibly be true. Because both The Stranger and its almost iconic author, Max Frei, have taken on mythic proportions. All right, I’ll cop: in some circles, not so mythic. But in those circles, The Stranger -- and the books that come after -- had become almost the Holy Grail of books. If only, we said, Frei’s work could be translated into English, nothing would ever be the same as it had been.

And then, of course, it was. And nothing ever will be the same, but not in the way we anticipated. See: it’s simply not possible to come to a book with the expectations I owned and not be disappointed on some level. And, in certain ways, I was. I am. But I do understand that you simply can’t run out and translate a Russian novel and expect it to play perfectly in English. And I’m talking any novel here. But with something as chewy and nuanced as The Stranger, you can amp all of that up considerably. This isn’t just a book, it’s an event. Clearly, that’s a little tough to live up to.

The Stranger is epic fantasy on a quirky philosophical level. But if those words bring Terry Pratchett to mind, just clear your head: Frei’s work is nothing like that. In The Stranger, even the author is a fictional character. It has come to light that the actual author of Max Frei’s books is a woman named Svetlana Martynchik. Max Frei, the quasi author, is also at the center of his tales, which begin in The Stranger with Book One of the Labyrinths of Echo.

It took my tightly honed North American sensibilities quite a while to pick up the rhythm of Freis’ writing: the alternate universe of dreams, the fact that he is a sort of magical secret agent who must stop a murderer from our world from getting his way in the new one.

North American readers will find themselves slogging through at first: this is not your grandmother’s fantasy. But stick with it: all becomes clear after a while, as well as the density of wit we’re unused to reading English language authors.

The Stranger
is a fantastic book and the first of many to be published in English. If I don’t miss my guess, reading it now will put you in the vanguard.

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