Fandomania.com’s #1 Book of 2009
To put it bluntly, Max Frei is a loser. He spends his day sleeping and at night he smokes, eats, and loafs around because he can’t catch a wink. But then he gets lucky. Through his dreams, he begins to contact a parallel world where magic is a daily practice—and, strangely, Max seems to fit right in.
Once a social outcast, he’s now known in this new world of Echo as the “unequalled Sir Max.” He’s a member of the Department of Absolute Order, formed by a species of enchanted secret agents; his job is to solve cases involving illegal magic. And he’s about to embark on a journey down the winding paths of this strange and unhinged universe.
“Fans of Jasper Fforde and Susanna Clark will happily jump into Frei’s world.” —USA Today
“If Harry Potter smoked cigarettes and took a certain matter-of-fact pleasure in administering tough justice, he might like Max Frei, the protagonist of this fantasy novel.” —Kirkus Reviews
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DEBUT IN ECHO
* * *
YOU NEVER KNOW WHEN YOU'LL LUCK OUT. TAKE IT FROM ONE WHO knows. For the first twenty-nine years of my life, I was a classic loser. People tend to seek (and find) all manner of excuses for their bad luck; I didn't even have to look.
From earliest childhood I couldn't sleep at night. As soon as morning rolled around, though, I slept like a lamb. And as everyone knows, this is exactly the time when they hand out the lucky tickets. Each morning at dawn, fiery letters spanned the horizon spelling out the most unfair of all possible proverbs, "The early bird catches the worm." Don't tell me you haven't noticed!
The horror of my childhood was waiting, night after night, for the moment when my mother would tell me, "Sleep tight — don't let the bedbugs bite." Time seemed to drop its anchor under my blanket; endless hours were eaten away by my vain attempts to fall asleep. To be sure, there are also happy memories, of the sense of freedom that descends upon you when everyone else is asleep (provided, of course, that you learn to move around quietly and cover the traces of your secret activities).
But most tormenting of all was to be woken up in the morning right after I had finally dozed off. This was what made me despise kindergarten, and eventually all my years at school. True, I did get assigned to the afternoon shift two years in a row. For those two years, I was nearly an A student. That was my final (and only) brush with glory as a star pupil — until I met Sir. Juffin Hully, of course.
With time, not surprisingly, the habit that prevented me from merging harmoniously with polite society became more firmly entrenched. At the very moment when I was absolutely convinced that an inveterate night owl like me would never shine in a world ruled by larks, I met him. Sir Juffin Hully.
With a wave of his hand he put me at the maximum possible distance from home, and I found a job that corresponded absolutely to my abilities and ambitions: I became the Nocturnal Representative of the Most Venerable Head of the Minor Secret Investigative Force of the city of Echo.
* * *
The story of how I came to occupy this position is so curious that it deserves a space of its own. For the time being, I will limit myself to a brief account of those distant events.
I should begin by saying, I suppose, that dreaming has always constituted an important part of my existence. Waking up from a nightmare, I was always certain deep down that my life was truly in grave danger. Falling in love with a girl from a dream could easily make me break up with my real-life girlfriend (in my youth, my heart couldn't accommodate more than one passion at a time). If I read a book in a dream, I would quote from that book to my friends as if I had read it in real life. And once, after I had a dream about a trip to Paris, I felt no compunction about claiming that I had actually been there. It wasn't that I was liar; I simply didn't see, nor did I understand, nor even feel, the difference.
* * *
I should add that I met Sir Juffin Hully in my dreams. Little by little, you could say, we became acquainted.
Sir Juffin could easily be taken for Rutger Hauer's older brother. (If your imagination stretches that far, try to augment his striking image with a pair of light, slightly slanting eyes.) This effervescent gentleman, with the mannerisms and flair of an emperor of the Orient or a ringmaster in a circus, immediately won the heart of the boy I once was, the boy I remember still.
In one of my dreams we began nodding hello to each another. Soon we would chat about the weather, like regulars in a café. Such superficial banter continued for several years, when out of the blue Sir Juffin offered to help me find employment.
He announced that I had, as he put it, an extraordinary bent for magic, which I simply had to develop if I didn't want to spend the rest of my life in an asylum. He then offered his services as a coach, employer, and considerate uncle, all rolled into one. This absurd announcement was nevertheless very attractive, considering that until then I hadn't discovered a single latent talent in myself. Even in my dreams I realized that no matter how you looked at it, my career wasn't going anywhere. Sir Juffin, inspired by my apparent willingness, plucked me out of reality like a dumpling from a bowl of soup. Up until then, I was certain that I had been a victim of my own imagination — how strange we humans are, when all is said and done!
* * *
I will, I think, postpone the saga of my very first journey between worlds — if only because I remembered almost nothing during the earliest days of my sojourn on Echo. In fact, I couldn't make sense of anything that had happened. Quite frankly, I suspected that it was all a protracted dream, if not a convoluted hallucination. I tried not to analyze the situation, but to concentrate on solving the problems at hand, since there seemed to be plenty of them. For a start, I had to undergo an intensive period of adaptation to my new life, for I had arrived in this World far less prepared than an ordinary newborn. From the first moments of their lives babies squall and dirty their diapers without disrupting the local traditions. But from the very first I did everything all wrong. I had to sweat like a horse before I could even pass for the village idiot.
* * *
When I found myself in the home of Sir Juffin Hully for the first time, he was absent from the premises. Indeed, being the Most Venerable Head of the Minor Secret Investigative Force of the Capital of the Unified Kingdom was a busy job, and my protector had been detained somewhere.
The Head Butler, Kimpa, who had strict instructions from his master to give me the red-carpet treatment, was somewhat perplexed. Until now he had welcomed only respectable people to the house.
I began my new life with a question: where to find the bathroom. Even this turned out to be a faux pas. Every citizen of the Unified Kingdom older than two knows that the bathroom facilities of every dwelling occupy the basement and are reached by a special staircase.
And my attire! Jeans, a sweater, a vest made of thick un-dyed leather, and heavy blunt-nosed boots, all succeeded in shocking the old gentleman, usually as unflappable as an Indian chieftain. He looked me up and down from head to foot for ten seconds at least. Sir Juffin swears that Kimpa hadn't fixed his stare on anyone for so long since the day of his wedding, two hundred years before, to the now-departed Mrs. Kimpa. The result of this inspection was that he suggested I change my clothes. I didn't object — I simply couldn't disappoint the expectations of the old fellow with ruffled feathers.
What happened next was painfully awkward. I was given a pile of colored fabric. I bunched up these masses of formless material in my hands, damp from agitation, and blinked my eyes wildly. Luckily, Mr. Kimpa had led a long and undoubtedly colorful life. In his time he had seen many wonders, not excluding cretins like me who lacked the most rudimentary of skills. So as not to bring shame upon the good name of his "Most Venerable Master" (as he called Sir Juffin), Kimpa set to work. In ten minutes, I looked fairly presentable from the point of view of any local resident of Echo; though, in my own humble opinion, I looked and felt extremely clumsy. When I was convinced that all these drapes and folds wouldn't inhibit my movements, and wouldn't tumble to the floor when I took a step or two, I regained my composure.
We then undertook the next test of my nerves: dinner. In a noble gesture, Kimpa deigned to keep me company at the meal. The time was thus put to good use. Before tasting each of the dishes, I would observe the performance of my teacher. After I had scrutinized the spectacle, I attempted to put the accumulated wisdom into action; that is, I dispatched toward my mouth the corresponding utensils filled with the necessary ingredients. I even went so far as to copy the expressions on his face, just in case.
At last I was left to my own devices, and was advised to take a look around the house and gardens. This I gladly did, in the company of Chuff, a charming creature who looked like a shaggy bulldog. Chuff was my guide. Without him I would most likely have gone astray in the huge, half-empty house, and been unable to find the door that led into the dense, overgrown garden. When I reached it I lay down in the grass and finally relaxed.
At sundown the elderly butler marched ceremoniously to a diminutive, elegant shed at the end of the garden. He soon emerged from it on a small wonder of technology, which, to judge from its appearance, could only be propelled by a team of horses. Nevertheless, it moved forward on horsepower of its own. Kimpa maneuvered this contraption with a speed that, it seemed to me, corresponded to his age. (Later I learned that at one point in his long life Kimpa had been a race-car driver, and the speed at which he drove the amobiler — this was the name of the peculiar vehicle — was the maximum of its capacity.)
Kimpa was not alone when he returned: my old friend, denizen of my wondrous dreams, Sir Juffin Hully himself, was enthroned on the soft cushions of this motorized carriage.
Only then did I realize that everything that had happened had, indeed, happened. I rose to greet him, and in the same movement dropped to my knees in the grass, rubbing my eyes, my mouth hanging open in wonder. When my vision returned, I saw two smiling Sir Juffins coming toward me. With an intense effort of will, I merged them into one, pulled myself up on my feet, and even managed to close my jaw. This may have been the most courageous act of my life.
"That's all right, Max," Sir Juffin Hully said soothingly. "I'm not quite myself, either, and I have a tad bit more experience in these matters. I'm glad to finally make your acquaintance, body and soul!" After these words he covered his eyes with his left hand and announced solemnly: "I see you as though in a waking dream!" Then he removed his hand from his eyes and winked at me.
"This is how we make someone's acquaintance, Sir Max. Repeat after me."
I did as I was told. It turned out that my performance was "not bad for a start," after which I had to repeat the whole thing about seventeen times. I felt like the dull-witted heir to a throne, for whom they finally must enlist the help of an accomplished mentor in good manners.
Alas, the training in local etiquette didn't stop there. The fact is that Echo, from time immemorial, has been inhabited by magicians. I suspect that all Echo natives are magicians, to some degree. Luckily, exactly one-hundred fifteen years before my arrival here, the ancient rivalry between the innumerable Orders of Magicians ended in the triumph of the Order of the Seven-Leaf Clover and King Gurig VII. Since then, citizens of Echo are permitted to indulge in only the simplest kinds of magic, mainly of a medicinal or culinary nature. For instance, magic is used in the preparation of kamra, a substance that serves as the local alternative to tea or coffee, and is intolerably bitter without some magic to ease the effect. A touch of magic is also useful for warding off grease from plates — a groundbreaking achievement, in my opinion!
* * *
So I simply can't describe the sincere gratitude I feel for the Order of the Seven-Leaf Clover. Thanks to their scheming intrigues that determined the course of history, I didn't have to learn, say, the two-hundred thirty-fourth degree of White Magic — which experts consider to be the apex of human capability. I decided that as far as I was concerned, the officially permitted tricks were the limit of my meager abilities. In a sense, I am a virtuoso-invalid, not unlike the legless British flying ace, Douglas Bader. Sir Juffin insists, by the way, that my greatest virtue is that I belong to the world of wizardry, albeit not that I know how to cope with it ...
On the evening of the first day of my new life, I stood before the mirror in the bedroom assigned to me and studied my reflection. I was wrapped up like a mannequin in the thin folds of the skaba, a long roomy tunic, and the heavy folds of the looxi, an overgarment that resembled a delightful compromise between a long raincoat and a poncho. The extravagant turban, strange as it may seem, looked very becoming on me. Maybe in this guise it was easier to preserve my equilibrium while straining to grasp just what was happening to me, for that guy in the mirror could be just about anybody in the world — except a close acquaintance of mine by the name of Max.
Chuff came up and began yapping and nudging my knee with his nose. You're big and kind! I suddenly thought, in a voice not my own. Then I realized that the thought was not mine, but his. The intelligent dog became my first teacher of Silent Speech in this World. If I am even mildly adept at White Magic of the Fourth Degree, which includes this kind of communication, I would kindly ask you to direct all compliments toward this remarkable canine.
* * *
The days reeled quickly by. I slept away the mornings. Toward evening I got up, dressed, ate, and then hovered around Kimpa with endless questions and observations. Luckily, I was never troubled by any linguistic barriers between myself and the other residents of the Unified Kingdom — why, I don't know to this day. All I found it necessary to do was master the local pronunciation and take note of a few new idioms, but that was just a matter of time.
My training progressed under the gentle but rigorous supervision of Kimpa, who had been entrusted with the task of making a "true gentleman out of this barbarian, born on the border of the County Vook and the Barren Lands." Such was the "legend" of my origins for Kimpa and all the others.
It was a very cleverly concocted legend, as I now know: a true masterpiece on the part of Sir Juffin Hully, in the genre of improvised falsification. See, County Vook is the part of the Unified Kingdom most distant from Echo. These Borderlands are sparsely populated plains that gently merge into the endless, inhospitable expanses of the Barren Lands, which are not under the domain of the Unified Kingdom. Almost no one from the capital had ever been there, as there was no point in taking such a trip, one that was not without danger. Those who dwell there — the good half of whom (according to Sir Juffin) were ignorant nomads, and the rest, runaway rebel magicians — don't lavish their praises on the capital, either.
"However quirky you may seem," Sir Juffin Hully mused, rocking cozily in his favorite chair, "you won't have to make any excuses for yourself. Your origins are the best explanation for anything that constitutes a blunder in the eyes of the local snobs. Take it from me: I myself arrived in the capital from Kettari, a small town in the county of Shimara. That was long ago, but they're still expecting outlandish pranks from me. I sometimes think they feel affronted that I behave with such aplomb."
"Excellent, Sir Juffin! Then I'll go ahead and start acting like one right here and now!" With that I did what I had been longing to do — I snatched up a tiny warm tart from my plate, without the aid of the miniature hook that looked more like an instrument of torture from a dentist's arsenal than silverware. Sir Juffin smiled indulgently.
"You'll make a first-class barbarian, Max. I don't doubt it for a minute."
"That doesn't bother me in the least," I said with my mouth full. "You see, Juffin, all my life I've been absolutely certain that I'm fine just as I am, and that I'm immune to the consequences of a bad reputation. That is to say, I have too much self-love to trouble myself with the torments of self-doubt and the search for self-affirmation, if you know what I mean."
"But you're a true philosopher!"
Sir Juffin Hully seemed to be quite satisfied with me.
* * *
Let me return to describing my studies. My passion for the printed word had never been as useful to me as it was during those first days. At night I devoured books by the dozens from Sir Juffin's library. I learned about my new surroundings, at the same time grasping the idiosyncrasies of the locals and cramming my head full of colorful turns of phrase. Chuff tagged along at my heels and was fully engaged in my schooling for he gave me lessons in Silent Speech. Evenings (the middle of the day, by my personal clock), I reported to Sir Juffin. He kept me company at dinner and unobtrusively monitored all aspects of my progress. An hour or two later, Sir Juffin would disappear into his bedroom and I would move on to the library.
* * *
One evening, roughly two weeks after my abrupt arrival in Echo, Sir Juffin announced that I now fully resembled an ordinary person, and thus deserved a reward.
"Today we're dining in the Glutton, Max! I've been looking forward to this moment."
"The Glutton Bunba, the most elegant mangy dive of them all: hot pâtés, the best kamra in Echo, the splendid Madam Zizinda, and not a single sourpuss to be seen at this hour of day."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Stranger"
Copyright © 2009 Max Frei.
Excerpted by permission of The Overlook Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
CHAPTER ONE - DEBUT IN ECHO,
CHAPTER TWO - JUBA CHEBOBARGO AND OTHER NICE FOLKS,
CHAPTER THREE - CELL NO. 5-OW -NOX,
CHAPTER FOUR - THE STRANGER,
CHAPTER FIVE - KING BANJEE,
CHAPTER SIX - VICTIMS OF CIRCUMSTANCE,
CHAPTER SEVEN - JOURNEY TO KETTARI,