It has drawn comparisons to the Dark Tower series and Perdido Street Station, yet The Etched City owes far less to King and Mieville than it does to ancient lore, Eastern mythology, spaghetti westerns, and the works of Hieronymous Bosch. At turns fascinating, frustrating, yet ultimately rewarding, this first novel by Aussie author K.J. Bishop defies attempts to pigeonhole it into a specific sub-genre. Steampunk, new weird, and supernatural western are just a couple of the terms used to describe it, but I prefer “literate dark fantasy”, a phrase that neatly encapsulates its lushly imaginative, incredibly captivating, and occasionally bewildering narrative.

Our story opens on Raule, a survivor of a civil war in which she had the misfortune of aligning herself with the losing side. She meets up with a former colleague and veteran of the conflict, Gwynne, a fellow drifter who is suffering his own spot of bad luck in the form of a mercenary posse, The Army of Heroes, hot on his dusty trail. Reunited by circumstances, the two ex-rebels flee across the unforgiving Salt Desert in a desperate bid to reach the safety of a distant bridge before frontier justice can catch up with them.

This first quarter of the book is riveting as we follow Raule and Gwynne’s attempts to outpace their pursuers. We are offered insight into their characters, their thought-processes, but little in the way of their respective pasts. They are Eastwood’s Man with No Name riding on camelback through an inhospitable wasteland that is equal parts Gobi, Sahara, and Mojave. A series of dispiriting setbacks culminates in a longshot forty on two last stand. But our protagonists prove themselves determined, strategically apt, and necessarily merciless in turning the tables on the enemy, ultimately leaving them matched against their sole remaining foe: the desert itself.

Eventually, the two find refuge in the city of Ashamoil where they attempt to build new lives for themselves, Raule as a doctor to the city’s needy, Gwynne as a mercenary enforcer for the slave-trading Society of the Horn Fan. Their divergent paths leads to an unspoken falling-out between them and as their uneasy friendship drifts, so does the narrative, growing more diffuse as Raule seeks redemption amidst the squalid environs of the city’s destitute and dying, while a fallen priest takes it upon himself to seek redemption for the seemingly unredeemable Gwynne. There is a sudden and inexplicable shift in POV, from Raule to Gwynne, as we focus on the mercenary’s rise through the city underworld, his religious and philosophical debates with the sinning Rev, and a burgeoning relationship with an enigmatic artist named Beth. Occasionally, we check in with a struggling Raule, juxtaposing the horrors of her job with Gwynne’s, and things take a bizarre, hallucinatory turn as the line between fantasy and reality wavers and fades. Sphinxes, minotaurs, artwork come alive, stories within stories within stories. I’ll admit to losing focus myself at this point, struggling with the narrative diffuseness, trying to piece together a plot from the bizarre elements introduced.

And yet, my frustration was short-lived as sudden dark developments within The Society of the Horn springboard the story back into its initial brisk pace. Hopelessness, despair, revenge, art, magic, and love all come together in the book’s final act to offer a conclusion that is paradoxically satisfying yet baffling.

The Etched City is beautiful written, filled with richly realized scenes and characters. It is a novel that seems to question our objective reality, using the noition of duality to explore its various themes: Raule as life-giver vs. Gwynne and death-dealer, the sun-scorched barrenness of the Salt Desert vs. the dank squalor of Ashamoil, the beauty of art and the grotesqueries of nature.

In the end, I was left with many questions but that didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of The Etched City. That said, I think it has the potential to be a polarizing book and those who prefer their storytelling grounded and ambiguous are bound to come away disappointed. So I really look forward to hearing the various opinions on this one.

As for me – I found The Etched City complex and compelling, a sophisticated and satisfying novel.

Well, no sooner do I get into town than my wife is heads out of town, leaving me to my dogs, my books, my chores, and you, dear readers. It’ll be a somewhat relaxing final week of hiatus marked by home repairs (I’m assuming the company we hired to work on our basement will be calling me up any day now), some episode #20 spinning with Paul, the special Michel Cluizel chocolate tasting I’ve been invited to on Wednesday, and more thought given to Project Twilight. I had some ideas for the latter that I sent Paul, Brad, and Robert’s way. It seems a long way off now but these things have a way of sneaking up on you.

Hey, if you haven’t already read it (thought I assume you probably have since it was a 2007 Hugo Award finalist for best novel), check out Glasshouse by Charles Stross. Great mind-bending fun!

Finally – Get your questions and comments in for K.J. Bishop who will be visiting us later in the week.

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susanthetartanturtle

Tell us (me !) about Baby – is that an exceptionally bad photograph or is Baby not a bonny pussy cat?

Is Felix a nice little dog – he ‘looks’ friendly.

David Nykl posted photographs of Brisbane – looks fantastic. He and Paul McG were going to be going to the Zoo.

smile

Arctic Goddess

Hi Joe:

Your summary of the test of your latest book choice pulled me in to the story. You really should write Science fiction stories yourself. You can create imagery with a short synopsis. Well done.

Have you ever read The White Plague by Dune author Frank Herbert?

Patricia (AG)

Barbaro
Barbaro

Hey Joe, I got my SGA Season 4 DVD in the mail today! Hooray!! First up had to be the bloopers, then Travelers because hubby likes Jill Wagner. The picture quality played on a Blu-ray player is just about what you see on the HD broadcast. Now come on the end of the month for Continuum on Blu-ray. I’ll be in heaven.

sylvia
sylvia

Thank you, Joe, for this recommendation. And, thanks to K. J. Bishop to field our comments and questions. Comments/Questions for K. J. Bishop It is very much appreciated that you will field our questions in that it gives the opportunity to delve into your thoughts on the characters, their development, and the general path the storyline takes. This is a treat because otherwise, one reads, one wonders, but one never discovers possible underlying elements, answers, or even “truths” as seen and conceived by the creators…meaning you, the author. 1. Loved the “general look” of the book cover the design and colors. Not sure of what the centerpiece is or depicts, as it had elements of possibly being one of the discoveries Raule had in her laboratory. Ignoring that, the colors and framing was – well, I liked it. Are you able to share the spark or impulse to its design? 2. For the courtroom portion, who and/or what is the significance of Madam L____ C___? 3. Gwynn’s never ending supply of cigarettes was intriguing. Initially, I was going to say he must have magic abilities too. Only at the end does he make a comment about packing choices to ensure he has enough cigarettes. 4. Please elaborate on the lighter that Gwynn uses. The use of a “lighter” – of course that word strikes me as something more modern like a zappo/bic. So it seemed out of place instead of matches. 5. The story seemed to be set up whereby Gwynn and Raule might continue the “adventure” together. But that did not happen. What were your thoughts? Did you intend to give Gwynn a love interest from the beginning? Did this just evolve? 6. It seemed that the etchings on Gwynn’s sword and/or Beth’s art might be linked to the title – the Etched City. Is this thought on the right track? 7. Did you have any experience that led you to write this book? 8. What was the basis for the character Gwynn? I found him interesting and intriguing. This story “started” or seemed like a leisurely commentary/travelogue. No sense of urgency to tell the story. The people start as ordinary folks – then a handful become very deep thinkers/philosophers/analytical. I enjoyed the journey at the beginning, then stories of their settling in Ashamoil. The imaginary place, time, characters, the story line was intriguing. Particularly the search and finding of the creator of the Sphinx and Basilisk. This was another world in the “old west/cowboy settings and medieval Europe” and also middle east/Africa. Technology was not advanced. There seemed to be some skipping around with technology or mysticism or magic and also in timeframes. At first the introduction of newspaper surprised me. This next comment has nothing to do with anything…but for some reason the character Gwynn reminded me of the main character in the movie V For Vendetta. Roguish, covered with layers of clothes, wielding the sword; obviously not all of the characteristics were/are the same. Yes, I… Read more »

AV eddy
AV eddy

Hi Joe from YYZ! (Toronto)

Short comment as typing into PDA. Had Gero moment – go see YPF or go to my fave TO bar & maybe see some friends? *sigh* Chose the bar, but hope to see YPF later this week – and maybe drag some people w/ me. smile

How long will Fondy be gone?

Very excited about SGA premiere this Fri! Got it on my calendar!

eddy

McWraith

@susanthetartanturtle
http://www.australiazoo.com
They may not have survived the school holiday crowds. Should I send a search party?

dasNdanger
dasNdanger

“…the special Michel Cluizel chocolate tasting I’ve been invited to on Wednesday…”

I. hate. you.

. wink

das

Narelle from Aus

Argh! Only up to Page 130 of The Etched City. Finding it very difficult to read on a PC.

I have a non-book question for K.J Bishop if that is ok Joe? Please ignore this comment if you think it is inappropriate.

K.J Bishop – What was your motivation for moving to Thailand from Australia?
Was it for inspiration, job opportunities, change in lifestyle?

My reason for asking…

Our long term goal (in around 5 years to get everything in place) is to sell up most items here in Australia and live in Thailand for a much simpler life as opposed the crazy, materialistic world that surrounds us here.

My ultimate goal is to open an education centre for women in the hope they do not have to resort to prostitution but that will come down to whether I will be beating my head against a brick wall due to a pre-existing culture that won’t budge. Even if I can help just a few girls get the required skills to give them a well paying job and break the cycle then I’ll be happy.

We are heading over to Thailand in a few weeks to spend a bit more time trying to work out if it is something that is realistic or just a dream.

I always get told I’m crazy for even thinking of doing something like this. Oh well, so be it.

Thank you for coming to visit here and your blog is great!

Thornyrose
Thornyrose

Welcome home Mr. M. and I hope your final week of quasi-vacation goes well. Now, onto The Etched City. This novel really grabbed my attention from the start. The author painted a world with words so vivid I found myself reaching for a glass of water to slake the thirst. I was further intrigued at the use of a physician as a primary character. I can’t honestly recall a lot of sci fi or fantasy that views its worlds from a healer’s point of view. The fact that this physician seems as physically and emotionally drained of life as the terrain she moves through hit a chord that resonated with me. I found Gywnn’s introduction to be equally fascinating. I was constantly reevaluating the world they were in, trying to decide if it was a post apocalyptic Earth, an alternate Earth, or a separate universe. Never did determine which, but it didn’t matter. The world we are presented with is engaging enough to make the question secondary to finding out what would happen next. Fortunately, “what would happen next” continued to move along at a satisfying pace. The run from the Army of Heroes troops, the battle at the Lost City, the escape onto the railway by the use of disguises. Chapter three was the first, but not last, of the author’s style that jolted me off balance. Oddly, I don’t resent the feeling. If anything, it sharpened my attention, as I sought answers for what was happening. If I didn’t always get a payoff in terms of clarification, I at least found myself forced to step back and evaluate what was in fact happening. The story and characters continued to unfold with a timing ensured to hold my attention. I did regret that we didn’t see more of Raule than we did in the later chapters. Where we did see her, I didn’t get a feel for the character evolving, as I did with Gywnn. The hardest thing for me to grasp, or follow, was the relationship between Beth and Gwynn. This aspect of the book above all others moved this book into the fantasy genre for me. Like so much else in this novel, I felt off balance, trying to figure out what was happening, or even what was real in the context of the novel. I’ll defer saying too much more, for fear of giving away some spoilers. I’ll settle for a short recap of what I liked about the book. The Rev and Gywnn’s discussions. Some of these passages I read just before sleeping, while tired. I’m going to have to reread those passages, but my impression was “what is a philosophy book doing hiding in a fantasy novel?” Raule’s niche in the city; her rejection by the medical establishment as some sort of quack practioner, and her continued self education even as she was forced to settle for a position she was vastly overqualified for. Elm. His ambitions, his scheming, his willingness to gamble his… Read more »

Davidd
Davidd

Hey Joe.

I passed my Learner’s test on the first try today! I am now able to legally drive anywhere inside Alberta from 5am to midnight…cool or what?!?!

Anyway, I watched 007: Casino Royale last night. Are you a fan of James Bond movies?

Thanks Joe.

fsmn36
fsmn36

I haven’t had the chance to finish the story yet, or even really get into it (page 60-something). I do have a few comments, though. I find that I’m not easily drawn into the story. It feels more post-apocalyptic than fantasy. I enjoy sci-fi that reflects a different Earth, or even fiction set in a normal Earth. But my fantasy, I prefer it not so…normal? Something more like Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time or Martin’s A Game of Thrones. Something that doesn’t feel like it’s happening in a world just like ours. Or maybe it’s just this book. I’m not sure. I will admit that I love her language. Bishop is incredibly articulate with vocabulary that is not typical. I am also intrigued by the short introduction to Beth. I look forward to continuing the story, however, and I can’t wait to read Bishop’s guest appearance.

Thanks for that other recommendation!

traveler64
traveler64

I’m a late comer to this reading cycle, I’m just this week getting Cordelia’s Honor, but Etched City sounds like a very interesting book. The pile of books is building up, but, what’s one more? grin

I finished Ophiuchi Line last night. It’s a fascinating story and I liked the writing technique of dealing with all those clones in real time. However, I am afraid the ending seemed to run out of steam. When I say the ending, I mean the last five pages or so. Up to that point everything was masterfully woven. May be I expected, to use Ronon’s words, “something that goes boom!”

Aside from that, you’re quite right–this is one that stays with you.

All right… on to the next sci fi novel!

Morjana

Hi, Joe!

The Media Pundit is having a Stargate Atlantis Week!

http://www.mediapundit.net/

smile

Morjana

anais33

Salut Joseph! sa va ? Rohh je vient de me réveiller et je suis encore trés fatiguer!…Cette nuit j’ai rêvez de vous..mais je ne me souvient pas trés bien…

Cette aprés midi je vais suivre de tour de france…le suivez vous ?

Outch voila plus d’un an que je n’est pas lu un seul livre, stargate prend beaucoup de place dans la vie, pas beaucoup de temp pour autre chose.

BOn aller énorme Bisou passez une bonne journée! Je vous adore!!

firefly827347
firefly827347

No mailbag today so I’ll repeat my question from yesterday.

I was wondering if you could tell me who did the costumes for Continuum? In particular, Claudia Black’s – it was beautiful.

Thanks,
Philippa

Charlie's Angel
Charlie's Angel

Hi Joe

The Etched City — what a fascinating book! It was so far out of my comfort zone that I still haven’t decided whether I “liked” it or not. It seems above that kind of sentiment.

Like you Joe, I was disappointed that the character of Raule faded into the woodwork after they got to the city. As the story unfolded and became darker and more surreal, I felt like I had inadvertently taken a dose of the mind-altering drug that Gwynn seemed to enjoy. It was unsettling, but I couldn’t pull away.

My question for the author: What made you decide to move away from the character of Raule and concentrate on Gwynn? Did you plan that from the beginning, or did the story just grow that way?

AutumnDream
AutumnDream

I was wondering, with all these interesting and complex books you read, do you ever find yourself interested in writing a more serious and complex arc or episode for Stargate Atlantis? Is the light hearted action-adventure tone of the show too prohibitive for the more heavy literary concepts you enjoy in novels? Even though Stargate has massive scope and story potential, I can see how a writer for the show – or any television show, for that matter – might find himself limited in terms of the “heavyness” of idea he wishes to express.

gater101
gater101

Hey Joe.

Re: an interview with you and Bob Picardo over at monsters & critics. Bob refers to Kanaan as “Teyla’s husband” – was that just a mistake or is there something you’re not telling us? razz

shiningwit
shiningwit

Hi there, I survived and if anyone is interested there’s a few pics and a bit of a rundown over here
http://shiningwit.wordpress.com/
I’m looking forward to normal service resuming by next week then back into BOTM etc. Its been a while!
I am now making myself a nice cup of cocoa and settleing down to watch season 4 all over again. Sod housework!!

drldeboer
drldeboer

This is the first never-read-before BOTM that I truly enjoyed prowling! That’s right, I didn’t so much read this book as prowled through its pages, peering in anticipation around corners, stalking the local joints, streets & river, running with the wind, drinking (yes, this book deserved alcoholic accompaniment) to the wet atmosphere. I love books that aren’t just a read but an experience. The language, the phrasing of things, was the best part til it added common swearing (rather disappointing). REALLY unique and interesting descriptions and depictions for most of the book, it felt like Arabian Nights meets Mafia meets Barsoom, with religion thrown in, enough twists in the story held my attention from start to finish. Pretty cool that the engravings were the plot device. I loved how the landscape went from desert (best part except I hate camels) to city and I just knew those two were going to wear out their welcome there sooner or later. It was a pleasure witnessing those circumstances unfold for both. As for the people, my favorite character was Gwynn, just my type, the educated, aesthetic, atheist, easy, contrary mercenary. I also really liked Dr Raule (whose story I felt should’ve been half the book, I didn’t get to know her well enough) and the conflicted priest Rev. Beth the Sphinx was ok, guessed from the start unfortunately; perversely enjoyed seeing what she would do to Gwynn. I’m assuming it was the presence of the sphinx in the city that precipitated all the weirdness going on (except for the priest). Gwynn’s co-workers and bosses, and other characters were necessary to the story but predictable. I wonder what happened to the strongman’s kid who was given to the alchemist. I loved most of the come-uppance. I wasn’t all that pleased with the ending, I had expected Gwynn to be killed and the rest of the book to be about the doctor. But I’m glad she went home and found another home, and I guess the sphinx had to put in a final appearance so it was ok.

So, a question for the Aussies: what do the phrases “a dog’s breakfast” and “a dog’s dinner” mean Down Under? Honestly, I thought Hewlett had made that up, I know what he meant by it but I never expected to see it used by someone else way before he did so I’m now assuming its a real phrase. I thought I knew all the slang.

Thanks for picking this book Mr M & thanks Ms Bishop for stopping by, hope you’re liking Thailand.
DD

Amz
Amz

I’ve been looking forward to discussion on The Etched City for a while now.

I can see how it would be compared to King’s Dark Tower series, but only insofar as the first part of the book. The journey through the desert has quite a few similarities – the barrenness which is part desert, part danger from others; the wasting of civilisation, being reclaimed by the land. While these are similar, I think they more relate to the type of story than King’s work specifically.

I actually found myself thinking of a philosophical work I read when I was studying history, The Muqaddimah (I think that’s the correct spelling) by 14th century North African historiographer Ibn Khaldun. Khaldun compares Bedouin cultures within Africa to sedentry civilisation, and a watered-down version of what he says is that Bedouin tribes tended to me more aware, alert, respectful of their surroundings and capable of survival. They also seemed more content. I found it really interesting to compare his philosophies with the development of Gwynn and Raule – how they were before they reached Ashamoil, and how they were once they had settled into life in the city.

This connection made me start to wonder – would Gwynn and Raule have ever been friends if they hadn’t needed to be? It seems from their interaction in Ashamoil that the answer could be “no”, but somehow I always seemed to think there was chemistry of some sort between the two of them – a connection that couldn’t be broken by their distaste for each other in the city, possible from their experiences in the desert together? What do others think.

I enjoyed this book a lot (and not just because I like supporting Aussie authors), particularly the narrative style. To me it seemed as though the jumping between character perspectives not only kept the pace of the book, but also enhanced the personality of the city. With such rich descriptions of the streets, the businesses, the crowds and the plant life, it seemed as though the city was a character in its own right. In a way it seemed as though the city helped shape each of the characters we met along the way.

Well, since reading The Etched City last week I’ve read another three intense novels, so I don’t have many questions for KJ Bishop at the moment, but I intend to go over it again tomorrow (hopefully) and come up with the long list that I had once I’d finished it. For now I have just one thought for KJ Bishop:

Did you set out to create the city as a character in its own right?

drldeboer
drldeboer

PS Narelle: not crazy. And recon is good sense.

iamza
iamza

(Grr, have just lost entire review of The Etched City courtesy of ‘helpful’ browser shortcut keys. That’ll teach me to try posting directly in the comment box!)

The Etched City: I loved the first part of the story, in which we’re introduced to Gwynne and Raule in the desert/dry lands. Gwynne and Raule are on the run, and Raule is determined to get to Ashamoil, a city that sounds a bit like paradise what with its plentiful water and abundant greenery. There she hopes to become a doctor, and make a new life for herself. I loved the sense of hope and optimism which permeated through this first part of the novel, the sense that if Raule and Gwynne could just make it to Ashamoil, all their problems would be over. For me, this first part of the novel felt like a complete story in its own right, and it would not surprise me at all to learn that it had been previously published.

Unfortunately, once Gwynne and Raule reached the city, I found my interest in the story waning. Mostly because for the longest time, nothing seemed to happen. Oh, there were lots of new characters introduced and lots of discussions, but I was not particularly interested in either the Reverend or the politics of the Admiral and the Horned Gang, and with Raule seemingly relegated to the sidelines, and Gwynne trading seemingly endless spiritual philosophy with the Reverend, I stopped reading.

I do think this is an exceptionally well-written novel. I loved the imagery and the worldbuilding, from the dry and dusty desert to the lush wonder and dreary squalour of the city of Ashamoil. That said, as with Sean Williams’ The crooked Letter, I wish there’d been less of an emphasis on philosophy and more on where the story was going. Then again, given others’ comments above, I may be in the minority in that regard. *grin*

Missy
Missy

Mr. Mallozzi, if i may ask, how come things from the stargate franchise keep getting leaked? Both the SG-1 movies, Search and Rescue…
I’ve also seen the script for Remnants floating about.
Has this always happened or does it seem like it’s escalated slightly in the last year or so?

Anyway, Reunion just aired in New Zealand, i loved it! Jason Momoa was really a star in that episode smile

And it was great to read the Q & A with Janina Gavankar! I’m a huge fan of her work on the L word and i can’t wait to see Whispers smile

Fran
Fran

Hi Joe

Do you have any siblings. I have three older sister’s myself. Want one? They’re cheap…..free. I am kidding.

Fran