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Review: 'The Stranger' by Max Frei


Synopsis: Max is a self-described 'classic loser', drifting through a succession of unsatisfactory jobs and relationships. Part of his problem may be that he's nocturnal; but surely more serious is that he considers his dreams to be at least as real as anything else he experiences. So, when a recurring character from one dream offers Max a job and instructions for passing between worlds, he takes the opportunity without a second thought. He ends up in the city of Echo working for a small magical law-enforcement department who are somewhere between detectives, secret police and a SWAT team.

Review: It took me a while to work out what was so odd about this book. When I'm reading something that was originally written in a different language (Russian, in this case) I often wonder whether the tone is part of the original piece or an unintended artifact of translation. Whichever the explanation here, everything felt oddly distanced: the banter a little stilted; the characters, flat; the setting, peripheral; and the antagonists somehow threatless even when they're actually killing people. Max is a passive protagonist, going where he's told, ambling between set-pieces and, where necessary, prevailing through luck, intuition or hitherto unsuspected powers. In some ways it recalled nothing so much as Alice In Wonderland, except here the unexpected developments seemed a product of mere convenience instead of dream-logic. I assume it was originally published as short stories, as each of the seven chapters begins with a quick recap of the situation, and presents a fairly self-contained adventure. The overall effect is of a 'monster of the week' TV series with a small main cast who are invulnerable for plot reasons, a few one-note bit parts, and as many featureless victims as necessary to give the impression of danger.

I'm not a reader of fan fic unless it's about Buffy and Willow lezzing up so I may have been slow on the uptake, but on reflection there's a pretty clear diagnosis for how and why the whole thing is ultimately so unsatisfying: Max Frei is a Mary Sue. I do know enough to know that this is a term that can be deployed unjustly, but a little research left me in little doubt that we have a classic case here. Evidence for the prosecution includes:
  • The protagonist's name is the same as the author's.
  • He is special: even amongst the special people he hangs out with, he has powers unlike anyone else.
  • He gathers more powers, for reasons neither adequately explained nor even plot-necessary.
  • His eyes change colour, in a unique, mysterious and alluring way.
  • Everyone likes him right from the outset, and tells him so.
    • ... except one grumpy guy
    • ... who no-one else likes
    • ... and who comes to fear Max
    • ... then subsequently (once Max saves his life) to worship him.
  • Everyone likes each other as well. Apart from the baddies, the harshest interaction is some good-natured teasing.
  • The Girl falls in love with him.
    • ... but (after she's slept with him) Fate heavy-handedly determines that they can never be an item.
    • ... so they remain just good friends, but with a patina of mild angst and wistfulness.
  • He overcomes everything in his path with a deeply convenient power of intuition which leads him to do exactly the right thing in the nick of time.
    • ...although he (more-or-less spontaneously) develops a number of powers which could resolve pretty much any problem instantaneously.
  • He gets everything he wants, notably acclaim, cats, good food and drink, and cigarettes.
I could go on...

There are moments when the book flirts with some deeper and more interesting questions: what's the relationship between the 'real' world and Echo? Did Max discover this world, or create it? Is he the only one who can pass between realities? Sadly, these issues just end up as excuses for the next encounter rather than drivers for the plot. The book's pleasantly quirky and a quick read, but it never feels real, or even very dream-like...

The blurb:
"If Harry Potter smoked cigarettes and took a certain matter-of-fact pleasure in administering tough justice, he might be like Max Frei." - Kirkus Reviews
If blurb writers had read any non-epic fantasy other than Harry Potter (or thought their readers had), they might be able to produce more accurate comparisons. I suppose it is about an ostensibly ordinary person from our world who finds himself Elsewhere, where he is an exotic but naive stranger who discovers he has mysterious powers and goes on exciting adventures and everyone thinks he's great. However, that's not a very unusual plot and, to be honest, Harry Potter's more edgy.

Dubbed 'the Russian Neil Gaiman'.
They don't mention who dubbed him thus (one suspects his publishers). I suppose Neil Gaiman has also written stuff with this basic outline. And the author photo looks a bit gothy. Nevertheless: no.

My proffered pull-quotes for the next edition:

If Alice in Wonderland smoked cigarettes instead of eating mushrooms, she might be like Max Frei.
or
If you pretend it's a Young Adult book it's a little less disappointing...



Illustrative excerpt from Amazon reviews:
*
To me this book has simple words and little depth.

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