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The Stranger by Max Frei

The title of this post is misleading.  It’s true of course, I’m talking about a book called The Stranger and it says right here on the cover that the author is a Max Frei.  I had never heard of him before picking up this book.  It was one of those I’m out of stuff to read and wandering the book store taking chances purchases.  So as I neared the end of the book, which I quite enjoyed, I remembered that it was book one in something called “The Labyrinths of Echo” series, so I thought hey, I’ll see how many more books there are.  THAT IS WHEN MY WORLD CAME CRASHING DOWN AROUND ME.  Max is the name of the main character in the book, so I just assumed the author was putting himself as kind of stand in for the stories hero.  However, it turns out he wasn’t.  Max Frei is, in fact, a russian writer by the name of Svetlana Martynchik.  There are currently eight books detailing the adventures of Max and only two of them at this point are even IN ENGLISH.  Oh what a literary situation I have gotten myself in now.  Thankfully, all of that can serve as background to the primary idea of reading in the first place:  The Stranger is an enjoyable book that contains numerous interesting characters, real moments of tension, and more than few legitimate laugh out loud moments.  Normal guy gets sucked in to magic otherworld, learns the ropes, and ends up teaching the locals a few thing himself is a story we’re probably all familiar with.  Frei’s (or Martynchik’s) take on it keeps the premise fresh.

The Stranger details the story of Max (eventually becoming known as Sir Max of the Minor Secret Investigative Force of the City of Echo) leaving the Earthly realm that we all know and ending up in a strange world, specifically in a city called Echo.  Max has trouble sleeping during the night and would prefer to sleep during the daylight hours, where he keeps having a dream of visiting a tavern.  This leads him to making friends with one of the other patrons, a man named Sir Juffin Hully.  Juffin takes a liking to Max and invites him to abandon Earth to come work for him, on the night shift of course, protecting the city of Echo.  Juffin is the Venerable Head of the Minor Secret Investigative Force of the City of Echo.  If that sounds too wordy for you, I advise against reading this book.  Thus Max is thrust into the world where he undertakes to solve cases of magical crime. Magic is alive and well in Echo, although it’s heavily regulated, which is where the need for the Minor Secret (ok you know the rest) comes in.  The majority of the book has Max solving different cases with the aid of Juffin, his daytime counter-part Melifario, the master tracker Lady Melamori, or the stoic and able to kill with a wave of his hand Sir Shurf Lonli-Lokli.  Be prepared for lots of unexplained evil presences, dead magicians causing mischief, and at least one case of a man turning into a large piece of meat against his will.

In case you haven’t figured it out by the names, to say The Stranger has an odd cast of characters is an understatement.  In my googling of the author, one of the expressions I came across was her being referred to as “the Russian Neil Gaiman”.  That is higher praise than this book deserves (I would read a phone book that guy wrote) but there is definitely reminders at work here in the odd characters and snappy dialogue.  In fact one of the most impressive things about this book is how effective the puns and words are given that it was originally written in Russian.  It isn’t perfect, but credit goes to one Polly Gannon, who is credited on the title page as having translated the book “from the Russian”.  Ooops?  There are no such glaring typos in the book, just a few strange expressions.  And I mean those other than the on purpose created strange expressions, like the Venerable Head of the Minor…..ok I’ll stop.

How I pictured Buriwoks

The biggest challenge of this book is getting past the beginning.  The story is initially somewhat confusing as only a few pages are devoted to giving background on Max and how he arrived at Echo, then we are thrown to a case that needs solving, and introduced rapid fire to many of the characters with odd names who are hard to keep straight.  The deeper I got in to the book however, the faster I started reading.  It’s hard not to be charmed by Martynchik’s characters, such as Juffin’s butler Kimpa keeping his disgust to himself as Max butchers local customs.  Or Kurush, who is a buriwok.  Buriwoks are birds that can talk, but more importantly listen, as they will never forget anything said in their presence.  Thus they are the record keepers of Echo, with Kurush able to recite information at request, but almost always ending his speeches with the phrase “now bring me pastries”.  Max is also difficult to warm up too at first because we really get no glimpses into his past life other than he didn’t like his status on Earth much.  He’s not the every man/stand in for the readers I expected him to be in a story like this, he’s just as odd as the rest of them.  In the end I enjoyed that Max had such a strong personality, but it can be off-putting at the start.

The Stranger is not the traditional fantasy story that it initially seems, but it departs in enjoyable ways.  The dialogue is the strongest part of the book, especially considering its translated origins.  Fiction books truly capture my attention much less than they used too, recently what little reading time I do get in is devoted to non fiction works.  However, The Stranger both hooked me and increased my time spent reading.  Fans of weird quirky fantasy, indeed in the vein of Gaiman, will experience the same thing.  The Stranger definitely stays strange the whole time, but hey who hasn’t wondered what it would be like to quit the day job and live in another world solving magical crimes?  Uh…..me either.  Now bring me pastries.

The Stranger spends a remarkable amount of time dealing with food now that I think about it.


2 Responses

  1. That sounds fascinating! I’m not very familiar with the Russian fantasy genre.

  2. Great article indeed! I read the book (actually, all of them), and decided to give a try to the English translation. Just have finished the second book. I Must say that I liked the English version as well! Not as much as the original, but here is a weird thought: when I just started to read the original book I was damn sure that the book is just a poor translation of some English language fantasy. At the time I did not know anything about the real author. And then… after a very shaky beginning, the story did suck me in. The unusual names, the magic events and unexpected twists – I guess it played the trick. I can only wish that translation of the rest of the stories will not take too long.

    A few notes on the side: during translation one of the stories of that second book somehow got lost. I mean, completely! It is not in my book at least (the softcover). And without that story some stuff seems a little out of the place now. The most prominent of them being a reference to a Moon Calf. You just stumble at that point trying to recall who that Moon Calf was and what is the significance of the character.

    The other thing that really stung me in the second book was a phrase about “lime trees in Moscow suburbs”. I mean, I knwo a thing or two about Moscow and I am pretty sure that lime trees just do not grow there. It’s a very wrong climate for them! That bugged me so much, I had to find the original and look that sentence up. Sure enough, there was not a word about lime trees, but… To verify my wild guess I took a look in Wiki and, of course… British English obviously refers to linden (or bass tree) as lime tree. What a weird quirk.

    Anyhow, wish you to enjoy more of Max Frei’s books and afterstories soon!

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