July 2009

Adam Morgan


The Stranger (The Labyrinths of Echo) by Max Frei

Long hyped as the "Russian Neil Gaiman," Max Frei's first novel in the ten-volume Labyrinths of Echo series is finally available in English. As an immersive fantasy, The Stranger offers plenty of preternatural thrills and mythologies, but not in the narratively streamlined vein of Neil Himself. The Stranger's problems stem from Frei's execution -- or perhaps its English translation -- not from his imaginative concepts and characters.

Frei's everyday protagonist, Max, who curiously shares the author's name, leads an unremarkable life in our world until the night he's plucked from a dream and recruited for a job in the City of Echo. Capital of the Unified Kingdom (and that's no typo), Echo is an older world saturated with magic. Imagine the romantic spires and stones of nineteenth-century Prague, but populated by wealthy three-hundred-year-old magicians and buriwoks, super-sentient birds whose encyclopedic memories serve as archives for centuries of war and wizardry.

Our man Max is named the Nocturnal Representative of the Secret Investigative Force, a kind of wizard police who have patrolled the streets of Echo ever since higher magic was outlawed by the Code of Krember a few centuries ago. He's tasked with assisting Sir Juffin Hully, Echo's resident Sherlock Holmes, on a variety of mysterious cases involving lethal mirrors, possessed dolls, and undead sorcerers.

Most of the novel's humor and delight stem from the quirky members of the Secret Investigative Force and their interactions with the often clueless Max, who's obviously unfamiliar with their customs. There's Sir Kofa Yox, an elderly shape-shifting eavesdropper. Sir Shurf, a powerful, cold-blooded enforcer who nonetheless takes a shine to Max. The seductive, capable bounty hunter, Lady Melamori. And Max's pets -- two goat-sized cats named Ella and Armstrong, and a dog named Chuff -- all of whom can communicate with Max through a phenomenon called Silent Speech.

While Frei's dry wit sparks the occasional giggle, he relies far too heavily on dialogue. His nonchalant prose and leisurely pace fail to create any palpable tension. The characters spend the majority of their time eating pub food and drinking karma, the local equivalent of coffee, and they tend to speak in constant exclamations. You never get the sense that there's much at stake in Echo, or in the life of Max, who's a bit of a putz.

Structurally, the novel's long chapters are highly episodic, with very little continuity between adventures. The world Frei creates is awe-inspiring, but the yarn he spins inside it is occasionally less than compelling, especially when it's spread so thin over a six-hundred page tome. Somewhere buried within all the exclamation points and endless one-liners, there's a fine fantasy novel, but Frei needs a steely-eyed editor to tease it out.


The Stranger (The Labyrinths of Echo) by Max Frei
ISBN: 1590200659
544 Pages

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