July 7, 2008: K.J. Bishop’s The Etched City

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.