- The Stranger (The Labyrinths of Echo)
- Overlook, 544 pp.
Imagine that you are meeting a person for the first time in a distant land. Deferring to local custom, you hold a hand over your eyes and say in greeting, “I see you as though in a waking dream.”
If this arcane ritual strikes a familiar note with you, then there are two possibilities. You are either a resident of the mysterious realm of Echo or you have read Max Frei’s fantasy novel, The Stranger.
The second scenario is the more likely. The Stranger is a translation of the first of a wildly popular series of novels from Russia. By turns serious and screwball, it combines sly, sometimes campy, humor with a yearning for personal insight and a good day’s sleep. The Stranger is an episodic quest set in a parallel universe, in which a Sherlock Holmes-Dr. Watson duo combat malign magicians and search for the perfect restaurant.
Max Frei is the name of the narrator of the novel. He serves alongside Sir Juffin Hully, the enigmatic chief of the secret police agency known as the Minor Secret Investigative Force. Their relationship, with Max serving as apprentice to Sir Juffin’s role as master and sorcerer, also evokes Robin and Batman. Pratfalls, miscues and last-second antidotes to black magic make for a fast-moving romp through a world both bizarrely wonderful and more than slightly sinister.
Max Frei is also the name on the title page. But rather than compound a confusing situation, let’s clarify things, or at least try to make the water a little less muddy. Max Frei “the author” is the pen name of Svetlana Martynchik, a 44-year old writer and critic from the Ukraine, now resident in Moscow. The Stranger is part of her series “The Labyrinths of Echo.” But after considering the vivid, absorbing and frequently hilarious narrative of Max Frei’s introduction to the land of Echo, you will have to decide for yourself whether his adventures there are entirely the stuff of fantasy.
Even before he ventures to the land of Echo, Max is already strange. Unable to sleep at night, he must take on a series of tedious late-shift jobs A chain-smoking “twenty-something” unable to sustain a meaningful relationship with the opposite sex, he drifts along in an off-beat life style which he describes in the following passage:
For the first twenty-nine years of his muddied existence, Max, the Max I was then, nocturnal dispatcher at a newspaper, average in every possible sense of the word, had grown used to attributing special significance to his dreams. Events in dreams seemed even more real to me than everyday reality. It even went so far that when matters in my dreams weren’t going very well, nothing could comfort me when I was awake. Moreover, even on the best of days when reality was absolutely agreeable to me, I didn’t quite see the difference between the dream world and the waking world.
One particularly vivid dream finds Max in a café called The Glutton Bumba Inn. There he meets an “effervescent gentleman, with the mannerisms and flair of an emperor of the Orient or a ringmaster of a circus.” Further dreams and further meetings ensue. The mysterious stranger, who introduces himself as Sir Juffin Hully, confides that he has detected an extraordinary aptitude for magic in Max. Combined with his night owl proclivities, this undreamt talent makes Max the perfect candidate for employment as Nocturnal Representative of the Most Venerable Head of the Minor Secret Investigative Force of the city of Echo.
Max naturally accepts and after a short time his beginner’s magic, combined with Sir Juffin’s careful guidance, helps him become the “unequaled Sir Max.” His skills include “silent speech,” passing his thoughts to Sir Juffin without a word, and mastery of the “special gaze.” This skill involves communing with inanimate things, revealing events in the past which happened in their presence — murders, sorcery, skullduggery of all sorts. Like all good sleuthing, handling the clues by “special gaze” involves a good bit of decoding. In his first case, the objects at the crime scene were so frightened as to be initially silent. When Max finds a small wooden box so petrified with fear that it tries to roll away, he realizes that “if things can remember the past, it means that they are sentient, they are able to perceive and feel. That means they have their own inscrutable lives…”
Max’s sensitivity — for people, as well as things — is ultimately what puts him in a special class in the city of Echo. Everyone there practices magic to one degree or another. But the selfish, power-mad abuse of spells and inner powers in the past by groups or orders of “Sinning Magicians” had nearly torn the social fabric of Echo to shreds. It’s the task of the Minor Secret Investigative Force to ensure that this does not happen again. Max is the perfect man for the job, on the night shift of course.
Posing as a visitor to Echo from the barbarian outlands in order to disguise his earthly origins, Max joins Sir Juffin’s team. The other members include the rash and debonair Sir Melifaro and Lady Melamori, a spitfire of a young woman who resists Melifaro’s advances only to fall into a doomed romance with Max. And then there is Sir Shurf Lonli-Lokli whose deadly hands enforce the iron resolve of the Minor Secret Investigative Force when legal magic and good detective work are not enough.
Max quickly makes his mark when he uses his human wits to defeat a demonic, spider-like monster lurking within a haunted mirror. Sir Melifaro had fallen into the invisible web spun by the creature and was saved only by the last minute intervention of Sir Juffin. But the creature must be lured from its mirror to where Sir Shurf can throttle it, thus releasing Melifaro from the coma-like trance which even Juffin’s powers cannot break without jeopardizing his life. In a reprise of Perseus and Medusa, Max conceives the idea of placing a second mirror before the monster whose voracious appetite induces him to emerge upon seeing its reflection and fall into the lethal grip of Sir Shurf.
Not every adventure ends so neatly. In one instance, when Max and Sir Shurf are sent to thwart the deadly spirit of a “sinning” magician, mixed signals nearly ends in tragedy. Max orders Sir Shurf to “liquidate” the ghostly magician. Sir Shurf, unused to human terminology, unleashes a torrent of water rather than seizing their implacable enemy in a deadly embrace.
The Stranger is a hugely enjoyable mix of madcap mirth and fantastical adventure. But there is a compelling humanity to the comedy/drama taking place in the parallel universe of Echo. It is a remarkably free-spirited place, despite the rigidly enforced restrictions on private magic.
Confessing his love for Lady Melamori to Sir Juffin, Max asks if office romances, taboo on Earth, were against the regulations in Echo. Juffin is bemused by the fact that such love-affairs are usually carried out clandestinely in Max’s native land. Juffin declares in consternation:
Your World is an odd place, Max! You think one thing, but you do the opposite. We don’t ‘think’ anything. The law stipulates what is required of us, superstition is a matter of inner conviction, traditions attest to our love of habit; but even so, everyone is free to do what he wishes …
Not a bad place to visit and perhaps, even to reside. Max adapts quickly enough, even learning to drink the substitute for coffee, a potent drink called kamra. His craving for cigarettes gets the best of him, but, beyond this lamentable hold-over from his former life, he makes the leap into this realm of enchantment with remarkable panache.
Hold a hand over your eyes and say magic words and perhaps you too will glimpse the wondrous realm of Echo “as though in a waking dream.”