Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Stranger, by Max Frei

The Labyrinths of Echo, a successful Russian series, makes its English debut with this book. Written under the pseudonym Max Frei, the series chronicles the adventures of a young man of the same name in a mysterious world of magic that he visits in his dreams.

Max the twenty-something character is, by his own admission, a loser . He is also an insomniac with surprisingly vivid dreams that he can recollect quite accurately. Before long, he meets Sir Juffin Hully in his dreams and is recruited to the nightwatch of the Minor Secret Investigative Force of the Unified Kingdom. Max, it turns out, has magical powers he himself is unaware of, which he now uses as a policeman of sorts, hunting down perpetrators of crimes involving magic and other supernatural forces.

What follows is a hilarious romp through Echo, capital city of the Unified Kingdom as Max quickly earns a reputation as a formidable investigator. He finds a motley crew of friends in his new role – the hilarious Melifaro, the upright Lonli-Lokli, and the beautiful Melamori. Echo is far removed from anything Max has ever known – clothing is strange, one night stands are formalized; he finds he can communicate with his colleagues and even dogs through Silent Speech. The language of Echo is formal, almost archaic, with everyone being addressed as 'Sir' or 'Lady'. Technology is nowhere near the levels Max has been used to. Yet, magic and telepathy more than make up for all this, as does the cuisine, that finds frequent mention in the book. Max readily leaves his old world for Echo, yet it is never far from him, slipping out in references to Rutger Hauer and Diana Rigg, and in the ‘awesomes’ that sometimes pepper his Silent Speech. Max is a success in Echo like he never was back in his old world, with one exception - his losing streak with romance seems to have followed him to Echo too, as seen in his unsuccessful flirtation with Melamori.

Now the basic premise of this story is not in itself new; travel between worlds and the transformation of a character from zero to hero have been perhaps the most enduring literary fantasies of our times, explored in tales as diverse as 'Gulliver’s Travels', and 'The Chronicles of Narnia' and more recently, such blockbusters as the Dark Materials trilogy and the Harry Potter series. The book jacket itself makes a reference to the Boy who Lived, likening Max to an adult, cigarette-smoking, less than successful Potter. In that respect, 'The Stranger' does tread rather familiar ground – magical occurrences, strange powers and stranger characters with tongue twisting names. It also seems to doff its cap at its literary peers; Max discovers Echo much like Alice does Wonderland . And he crosses between worlds in a manner reminiscent of Harry Potter and his magic bus.

Very little of Max's past is revealed; in fact, the reader is thrown almost from page one into his new world. The book is not very plot driven either, but is presented as a series of cases that Max and his friends solve, that can quite easily be read out of sequence. The cases all seem very speedily solved; Max’s own hitherto hidden powers conveniently emerge in times of danger to help him escape and be hailed yet again as hero. This is an extremely long book (544 pages) and a certain monotony does set in after a while, with its case-driven structure. There is quite a lot of slapstick humour that I did not always find amusing. I was also annoyed by the central female character, Lady Melamori. Here is a seasoned investigator at ease when booking criminals, yet dissolving into tears or nervous skulking in the presence of Max, whom she is clearly attracted to. Their flirtation and frequent tiffs would have been more fitting in a high school romance, not this otherwise engrossing book.

For all the issues I had with the book, it is nevertheless very readable, equal parts whimsy and mystery. It is also quite clearly meant as an introduction to Max and this enormous cast of characters, paving the way for the other nine books already out in the original Russian. I have a strong feeling that successive books in the series will be more plot-driven, perhaps even darker than this humorous volume.

The one mystery greater than Max’s future in Echo is perhaps the real identity of the author. While a little Google search suggests that the author might be a young Russian woman, I’m quite content to believe in the illusion of the writer Frei, and wait for the next instalment of what promises to be a terrific literary ride.

Thanks to Vida Engstrand from Overlook Press for sending us a copy of the book to review.


  1. The author is women - Svetlana Martinchuk.
    And book is really great!!! Especially on russian. I read all books of these seria and.... It is a really cool))))

  2. As a person who read the entire series, I'd say that Book 2 is probably the best. And yes, the first book does indeed drag on for too long.

  3. I loved that book. Hope, there will be more!