Sunday, January 29, 2012

A Few of Max Frei’s Echo Stories

Writing about a few medium-length stories from Max Frei’s Labyrinths of Echo books feels like breaking my own unwritten blogging rules: I rarely write about books I haven’t finished, and I rarely write about books I read over long stretches of time. In this case, I think “long” means two years, meaning my memory of the first three stories has faded. A lot.

But there are extenuating circumstances: I read two more stories this month and Frei, whose real name is Svetlana Martynchik, has written a giant stack of Echo books that I’m unlikely to read and finish within the next year or two or three. Plus two volumes of English-language translations exist and a third is coming soon. Volume one, The Stranger, contains the first seven stories. Though I have no desire to read a crate of Echo books volume after volume, I’ve enjoyed a few stories at a time and will certainly read more…

The five Echo stories that I read fall into a fuzzy genre of fantasy that combines cozy with sinister: a first-person narrator named Max describes his new life in a world called Echo. Max tells us in an introduction that Echo doesn’t exist on any map but the city is the capital of the United Kingdom of such places as Uguland, Landaland, and Uruland. Residents perform magic at varying levels of ability, and Max works as nocturnal representative of the most venerable head of Echo’s Minor Secret Investigative Force, which solves crimes. (I’ve taken translations of titles and lines from the book from Polly Gannon's translation,visible through Look Inside! on

Though the Echo stories begin with Max telling about his earthly difficulties getting to sleep at night, it’s only a few stories later that we learn the particulars of how Max’s boss, a Sir Juffin Hully—Echo sounds like a rather title-happy place—brought him to Echo, where Max is passed off as a clueless guy from the sticks to explain away his social ineptness. It didn’t take much to bring Max to Echo: Max first meets Sir Juffin in a dream, then makes the dream a reality (of sorts). Max’s dream life is pretty rich, and I scribbled “lucid dream” several times during my reading. All those foggy lines between dreams and reality brought me back to recent reading, like Gogol’s “Nevsky Prospect” (previous post) and Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

As I mentioned above, Max’s stories combine cozy and sinister. Frei juxtaposes humorous names and fanciful objects with, for example, a serial killer case. And Frei’s cast of characters loves drinking a beverage, apparently caffeinated, called kamra; Max says an establishment known as Обжора Бунба, which Gannon calls the Glutton Bunba, serves the best kamra in Echo. Gluttony for food and glory leads to particularly strange and nasty consequences in “Король Банджи” (“King Banjee”), in which a woman reports that her husband has turned into a (rather large) piece of meat with a distinctive smell. Soup has oddities, too.

I think the Echo stories appealed to me for their blend of earth-bound fears with out-of-this-world oddities. Then there’s all that Max and I have in common: a preference for night, the need for kamra, and, yes, a deep love of sleep. I’m certainly not a dangerous type like Max, though: Lady Melamori, whom Max fancies, feels he exudes some sort of threat. Two other things: though I enjoy cooking, Echo’s quick food delivery appeals to me, particularly since places like Glutton Bunba bring food nearly instantaneously after receipt of a mind message. Finally, I love that in Echo there are many bathtubs but no TV… but I certainly appreciated Max’s reference to Twin Peaks, in which he thinks about what he would have done had he been agent Cooper.

For more: Robert Thompson on Fantasy Book Critic offers lots more detail on the Echo stories in The Stranger.

Level for non-native readers of English: 3.5 out of 5.00, though I think my biggest language-related problem was sorting through all the Echo vocabulary. I admit I have a hard time keeping track of character names in all languages. 

Up Next: NOSE prize winners. Gleb Shulpyakov’s Фес (Fez), an oddly beguiling (or beguilingly odd?) NOSE finalist that friends just brought back from Moscow for me. [Update on 1/31/2012: I just checked the NOSE site for the award calendar and found that Fez was taken off the shortlist... a quick check of comments on's news story showed that Fez was an on-again-off-again shortlister.] And more St. Petersburg…

Disclosures: The usual. I always enjoy talking with Overlook Press, which published English-language translations of Max Frei’s books. And yes, the link to Amazon is connected with my affiliate account. 


  1. Very interesting to read about Max Frei, I still haven't got round to reading her yet either but I know she's worked with Linor Goralik, whom I am growing more and more fond of. The Sektor M1 story is quite short really - and it's quite fun, as well as spooky. A recent post on openspace compared one of her other books this year, 'Valerii', to an updated Shkola dlia durakov, which to be fair is attractive only a superficial level because I can't imagine anyone being able to replicate Sokolov's language on any scale.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Tom. I like the Frei stories as relatively light fantasy (genre) reading; they work especially well for me when I'm tired. (Fitting, I suppose, for that focus on sleep!)

      I'm glad you mentioned Linor Goralik, whom I've barely read at all but keep meaning to learn more about. And then there's poor Школа для дураков, which has been getting moved around on my shelves for years now. I don't know why I keep resisting reading it, particularly given all the favorable comments I've heard. (Water damage to the book may be part of the problem, though that doesn't usually stop me!)

  2. Goralik's got all her stuff online, and Sektor M1 fits into the light fantasy genre pretty snugly (I'm trying to push that one a bit).

    It's a remarkably rewarding read, I think. It's the only one of his I've read though, despite my aspirations for Mezhdu sobakoi i volkom (which is reputedly rather difficult).

    Thanks for a great post!

    1. "Remarkably rewarding" sums up what other people have told me about Школа для дураков. I should move it back to a "sooner" shelf...