Illusory Reality

A blog of speculative fiction

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Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Etched City by K. J. Bishop

I was initially sceptical about the Etched City - I'd heard that it was a Western-type fantasy and comparisons were drawn with Stephen King's the Gunslinger, which I found distinctly mediocre, and from the opening sequence, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is what the Etched City would be. Raule, a doctor, and Gwynn, a killer, are both on the run from General Anforth's Army of Heroes, after being on the wrong side in the civil war. The setting seems to be that of a Western - a desert which they're fleeing across, 19th century technology and weapons and the towns they visit could easily be those of the American mid-West. This isn't a setting which particularly interests me, and it's probably the weakest part of the book. It's a straightforward chase, culminating in a battle of which our two protagonists are overwhelmingly outnumbered, yet still manage to win. And they flee to the city of Ashamoil. There was nothing particularly bad about it up to this point, and the writing was already of a high quality, but there was nothing special either.

Then, in Ashamoil, this changed. Ashamoil is one of the most fully realised cities in fantasy and it has the same depth of atmosphere and the same intensity of imagination as New Crobuzon or Ambergris. Ashamoil is a dark, industrialising city with little to commend it, but still seems like a paradise for Raule, at least, until she reached it. Then she finds out that the only way to be a practising doctor is to study at the university (at immense cost - which of course she cannot afford), and she ends up working as a doctor in a parish hospital in one of the poorest districts of the city. From her view we see how terrible life is for the poor, when their best opportunities are to risk their lives fighting to the death amongst each other to attract the attention of potential employers, and Raule is left to tend to the loser of the fight, who inevitably dies soon afterwards. But while the writing is excellent, creating a great atmosphere, it is the characters which bring the city to life. Raule is perhaps the simplest of these and she does very little throughout the book, but she is surrounded by an array of brilliantly developed characters. Gwynn, the amoral killer who joins a slaving company, his friend the Rev, who is always trying to convert him, his employer, Elm, his friend Marriott, also in the employ of Elm. These are all entirely believable three dimensional characters. Gwynn seems at first to be an archetypal anti-hero, but he possesses a clear (if twisted) sense of duty and a certain naïvity. Dominating his life is the relationship with the enigmatic woman, Beth Constanzin. He engages upon a search for her after encountering an etching entitled the Sphinx converses with the Basilisk. These two roles are fulfilled by Beth and Gwynn respectively. Their interactions prove some of the most interesting and imaginative in the book. There is also an element of surrealism - the slave trade relies on the war between two tribes, but it must progress at such a rate that the population grows at the same rate people are enslaved. While Gwynn has no moral objections to working for slavers, Raule breaks off all contacts with him for this. On the whole, though, slavery is not the issue addressed. Much of the first half of the novel is little more than setting the scene, establishing the place of Ashamoil and its inhabitants. It is then that the plot starts to gather pace, as Elm's son returns to the city and they run into problems, and all are put at risk. Gwynn and the other employees are soon forced to commit the most vile acts, and when this extends to his own friends Gwynn's earlier facade of confidence and amorality collapses, as guilt begins to overwhelm him. The change in Gwynn throughout the novel is remarkably well done and, when the story begins to pick up pace, it is a truly gripping horror novel, full of the fantastic. Bishop displays an imagination to rival Mieville's at times, and the image of the Lotus Man is one of the most imaginative creations I've seen in all fantasy. Bishop weaves in a mythology into the story without adversely affecting the pace, creating a much more complete city than could be expected in a modestly sized book (of about 300 pages in my edition).

The Etched City is a brilliant novel - particularly when it deals with its namesake, and it is a worthy contender to the likes of Mieville, Vandermeer and Harrison, displaying that same outlandish imagination and skilful atmospheric writing. And she populates this city with a diverse cast of three-dimensional characters. There are perhaps some minor issues with pacing, and a couple of sentences don't work as well as they should. But they are few, and more than outweighed by the raw emotion and sheer imagination of this novel. And what I haven't yet mentioned is this is a debut novel. For a debut novel it is more than just remarkable - it is perhaps the single greatest fantasy debut I've ever read. There are few experienced authors who can create anything like this good - and I can only hope to read more novels by Bishop in the future. I would give this a 9 out of 10.

2 Comments:

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Blogger Alex said...

To say I enjoyed this book does little to convey it's sheer brilliance. I picked it up casually as looking mildly interesting; a few pages in I was totally hooked and after a few more I was hugging myself with delight. I'm not a great reader of 'fantasy' fiction, but I strongly suspect that writing of this standard is not the norm. This is not genre-bashing, as I would say that KJ Bishop's novel goes way beyond the general standard of most first novels full stop.

The mix of the mundane and the baroque is leavened (and indeed, driven) by the understated narrative tone. Wondrous and sometimes brutal events unfold against a teeming city backdrop that is worthy of Dickens, and the pace, whilst never feeling hurried, never flags.

For me, this book 'works' so well because it doesn't involve any massive suspension of disbelief - the characters, so beautifully drawn, are deeply rooted in a real and recognisable world, and the magical events unfold in a very material context thus rendering them even more strange and beguiling.

It's always a joy to stumble upon a new author who draws the reader into their own vision - this book provided for me exactly such a joy.

9:56 pm  

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