Shannon (Giraffe Days)'s Reviews > The Stranger

The Stranger by Max Frei
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Mar 21, 09

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bookshelves: 2009, fantasy, review-copy
Read in March, 2009

Max Frei is a loner in the world, a bit of a chain-smoking bum who's tried fitting in and being normal but doesn't have the heart for it. Only in his dreams is he truly alive. In his dreams, things seem so real that he acts upon them in waking life: if he meets a beautiful new woman in his dreams, he'll break up with his real-life girlfriend. He can quote from books he's read only in his dreams, and visit other places.

One such place he visits regularly is a strange city where the streets are paved in mosaics and the people wear colourful clothes and turbans. It's here he meets Sir Juffin Hully, who recognises in Max something more than he is in his own world: a magician. Juffin offers Max a job and a home far away from his own, in the city of Echo in the Unified Kingdom.

Crossing between worlds is easy enough, and Max loves his new home as he never loved the place where he was born. Concocting a story about his origins to hide the truth, Juffin introduces Max to his colleagues of the Minor Secret Investigative Force at the House by the Bridge and gradually teaches Max some magic, odd bits of history, and how to brew kamra, the stand-in drink for tea and coffee of which the citizens of the Unified Kingdom imbibe in large quantities.

Max is launched into this crazy, upbeat world where, if you can't afford to pay for your dinner, the king will happily pick up the tab, and where even dead Grand Magicians cause mayhem. The only thing from his own world that he misses are the cigarettes, but even that small dent in his new-found happiness can be overcome.


There are, I believe, ten novels in the series, which have been doing well in Europe for some time now. This is the first time it's been translated into English. Max Frei, aside from being the narrator of the series, is also the pseudonym of Russian novelist Svetlana Martynchik. As part of the zaniness of this novel, it makes perfect sense that Max Frei would be the "author".

I'm completely torn as to how to rate this or even to talk about it. There were plenty of times throughout the story when I was confused and a bit annoyed; yet it was also highly original, very fun, quite humorous and definitely quirky - all of which I enjoyed. Let's go over the downside first.

From the very beginning, it wasn't an easy book to read. This isn't due to the language but more the style of the prose. What I mean is, the prose isn't difficult to read - it's almost simplistically written - but it's confusing to follow. I think it would be perfectly clear on a second reading, but you'd have to get through a first reading to even reach that stage, so it's not terribly helpful. Part of the problem is that Max doesn't always explain things very well, if at all. I can't figure out who his audience is for this story of his adventurous life, but he vacillates between assuming your prior knowledge to assuming your absolute ignorance. Even when he does try to explain things, I constantly felt that I wasn't on his wavelength and was left feeling more confused, rather than less.

Divided into long chapters that each present a different adventure or mystery to be solved, another small thing that bothered me was that I couldn't tell where it was going. There's no over-arching plot, as is typical, which does enhance the "memoir" quality that the author was possibly striving for - but it also leaves me a bit adrift and without much incentive to read on. Never really noticed that before, until it was gone. I happen to find reading about other worlds - like HP - incredibly fun even without an over-arching plot, but it does add excitement and tension and has you gagging for the next book, if done well.

There are still some details that I don't understand, like the bit about Max briefly turning into a vampire, and what could possibly be some inconsistencies. But I really want to move on to the positives.

The book has been aimed at fans of Sergei Lukyanenko (Night Watch series) and Susanna Clark, but I have to add one of my own: Harry Potter. It's like an adult version of the HP world, with ludicrous titles for things (Order of the Watery Crow, which Max always chuckles at, and his colleague Lonli-Lokli's official title: He Who Snuffs Out Unnecessary Lives, for example) and some crazy, barely edible delicacies. And all the magic, of course, which seems to be made up as it goes along. Which means you never know what this crazy world is going to throw at you next.

The tone is light-hearted and silly and nonsensical, which perfectly suits the world and makes it feel more real - but not quite what I was expecting from looking at the cover. The story, the world, its characters, don't take themselves too seriously, Max least of all, and that does lessen any real sense of danger, which would have created a nice balance. The Stranger is what it is and you pretty much just have to go along for the ride and not worry too much - a bit like Max, really. And it is a fascinating world. I just wish it had a bit more darkness to it, and some kind of connecting plotline, to motivate me to read on. At 544 pages it's modestly long for a fantasy novel, but took me a lot longer to read than it should have. It could also do with some tighter proof-reading - always a pet peeve of mine!

Overall, it was enjoyable, if perplexing and confusing at times. It'd make a great TV show.
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