Limyaael

[info]limyaael @ 09:16 pm: Review of The Etched City, by K. J. Bishop (mild spoilers)
This is one of those books where the first term that comes to mind is “interesting.” Unusually, it was also the term that I finished the book with. It’s interesting. Since I abandoned a book that seems like it’s taking the track of generic high fantasy to read it, that’s more of a compliment than it appears.



Brief Summary: Raule is a doctor, one of the few survivors of a failed revolutionary movement, traveling across the desert known as the Copper Country. She meets up with Gwynn, another survivor. They’re both rather aimless and drifting, and due to their pasts, there’s not a lot of future for them in the places they know. Raule learns about a city called Ashamoil, which may promise opportunities for them both. Off they go, and walk straight into tons of weirdness.

Setting: The back blurb claims that The Etched City is like Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. As far as the first setting goes, that’s correct:

There were no milestones in the Copper Country. Often a traveller could only measure the progress of a journey by the time it took to get from each spoiled or broken thing to the next: a half day’s walk from a dry well to the muzzle of a cannon poking out of a sand slope, two hours to reach the skeleton of a man and a mule. The land was losing its battle with time. Ancient and exhausted, it visited decrepitude on everything within its bounds, as though out of spleen (page 3 in my copy).

Okay, so it opens with description, which usually gets my back up—must every fantasy book open as a panorama?—but it’s stark, desolate, and weirdly beautiful. This is at least different from the usual arching spires and green fields and heavy castles of pseudo-medieval Europefantasia.

The Copper Country gets plenty of lavish description, but it’s only the setting for the very first few chapters. Then Bishop moves on to Ashamoil.

Now this is more like it.

I admit to liking the setting because it hits a few very personal buttons, which might limit its appeal for other people. It’s set in a ‘southern’ city—as in, the climate is hot, there’s jungle just outside the walls, and crocodiles swim up the river and eat you if you aren’t careful, while people bring in pythons to clean up beetles. Not a snowball or pine tree in sight, except in Gwynn’s flashbacks. Most of the characters are dark-skinned, and Gwynn’s pallor marks him as a foreigner. There’s slavery and opposition to slavery, combined with technology that makes me think late 1800’s/turn of the century. (Admittedly, I think so mostly because there’s mention of alarm clocks and guns, with no mention of cars or electricity, and doctors are just starting to perform lobotomies). Magic is present, but rare, and truly weird; Bishop makes no attempt to elaborate its laws and rules.

Most of all, there’s a sense of the city. Ashamoil has slums. It has lower-class characters. It has dangerous, nasty gangs. It has factories powered by child labor. It has crime lords fighting things out with guns, swords, and cavalry charges. It has blood and guts and sex and death. (Lots and lots and lots of blood and guts and death. This is not a pretty book). It’s urban fantasy set in another world. And that pleases me, because while there are qualities of urban fantasy I like, notably the interaction with technology and the confrontation of very modern mindsets with magic, other-world fantasy is still my first and foremost love. I know there are other books like this out there, but The Etched City is the first one I’ve finished. And Ashamoil is as alive as the people who dwell in it.

Characters: Bishop impresses me here. While many of her characters have few if any redeeming qualities, there are no shining heroes prancing around against shallow dark lords, while surrounded by people who simply don’t understand their shining heroism. There’s no sense that the trauma and tragedy suffered by one person completely outweighs any other trauma and tragedy in the book. There are people, struggling to get by, and along the way, suffering in the depths of hell.

The book does have a main focus: Gwynn, the pale-skinned foreigner who, like Raule, survived the failed revolution and is being hunted by the victorious General Anforth. Gwynn is really damn interesting and fascinating, and I even like him, though, once again, some of the things that make me like him might not be recommendations to others.

-He’s very violent, carrying several guns and a sword he’s named Gol’achab, which means “Not My Funeral.”
-He’s an atheist. This is because all his people are. He gets to have arguments with the Reverend, a fallen priest of an (apparently) Catholic-like Church, though there’s no mention of Jesus that I could see. And he gets to win, instead of fall down sorrowing and be converted.
-He’s introspective enough to notice weird things about Beth, the artist he has a relationship with, but unromantic enough to decide that he’s not really in love with her for a long time.
-He’s extremely pragmatic. He works for a slave trader because it pays well.
-He’s clearly had several different stages in his life; there’s no sense that he stayed frozen like a stick in the mud until someone came by and told him he was the chosen scion of whatever.

So I think he does compel interest. Whether people will like him or hate him is a different matter.

Raule is also interesting, but Bishop’s means of handling her confused me. The story starts out in her perspective, follows her closely for the first chapters (she’s the more ambitious of the pair, and the one who decides to head for Ashamoil), and then reduces her to a side-character visited now and then between Gwynn’s chapters. She plays a key role in several minor scenes. She has the interesting, if freakish, habit of collecting deformed stillborn babies and examining them to see if she can determine what caused the deformities. She has sex without waiting for marriage and One True Love, and she does not want babies, which is so refreshing in a female main character that I can hardly stand it. Only she’s not really a main character. I think Bishop could have told the story without her, especially considering that another person with a connection to the doctors exists—the Rev—and could have led off the hospital scenes. She has ethical dilemmas, which I thought meant she would have a major part to play, but she winds up being just kind of…there. She’s part of the reason I can’t recommend this book unreservedly.

The Rev plays a bigger part. He’s a priest fallen from grace, and trying to convert Gwynn to his religion, and he is the only character I have found like that who does not annoy me. This is nothing short of miraculous, and so I am willing to forgive Bishop for Raule (mostly, anyway). It probably helps that he has all sorts of little human touches, including a weakness for drink and girls and this magical “gift”:

When he was tired of that, he grew cocoons on the palms of his hands.

He never knew what would hatch when he did this. Often it was wasps; but he had also produced centipedes, scarab beetles, and even hummingbirds. This time, when the cocoons split, it was large luna moths that emerged onto his palms, where they sat fluttering their diaphanous pale green wings. When their wings were dry they flew away and up, climbing quickly through the air. The Rev watched them. Although he didn’t want to like them, he couldn’t help but think how beautiful they were.
(189-190 in my copy)

This magic gave me a shudder of the weird and strange that flung fireballs and moon goddesses and werewolves just don’t give me anymore. This isn’t magic drawn from Celtic myth, hurrah hurrah. It is.

The other main character in the book is Beth Constanzin, Gwynn’s mysterious lover. She does etchings, including one that has Gwynn in it, which compels him to seek her out. She looks strange, and she has a strange kind of luck, and a strange kind of fascination for him. Though I didn’t always appreciate the way that the book just brought up new riddles about her instead of answering old ones (see below), the riddles are really cool. No prophecies here, just more weirdness and more weirdness until you feel like you’re walking in a Hieronymus Bosch painting—which is what some of her art sounds like.

Plot: Yeah. About that.

I admire this book intensely. The setting does things I’ve wanted to see more fantasies do, the characters are wonderful if not always likeable, the magic’s weird and truly inexplicable.

But there is no plot, and that keeps my admiration as admiration rather than adoration.

I wouldn’t have as much of a problem with this if I had known from the beginning that the book was episodic. But it’s not. Raule and Gwynn are, in the beginning, characters who have very clear Problems. They need to solve the Problems. They take the steps that let them do so (and going to Ashamoil is only one of those steps). They encounter new Problems in Ashamoil. There’s clearly the chance to pursue these Problems and their solutions, and create a tightly tied-together plot.

Instead, the story turns episodic, and wanders away into its own dream.

There are things that seem like they could be a plot. There’s Beth and Gwynn’s questions about her. There’s the conflict between pro- and anti-slavery forces. There’re the social problems of the absolutely horrific environment that Raule chooses to practice her hospital work in. There’s the Rev, and his past experiences, which aren’t revealed until close to the end. There’re the increasing mysterious happenings in the city. But it’s as though the story’s reticence on the subject of magic got into everything else, too. Whereas in most episodic novels the author skips over everyday portions of the main character’s life to show us significant ones, here we get a mixture of significant and everyday, and no way to tell which is which. Except by guessing, which I just did. For all I know, everything really is significant. But I fail to see the connections. And while I feel the book does come to a significant ending, it left me with tons of questions, which seem extremely unlikely to be answered in a sequel, and it wove the ending of plot threads that entered the narrative extremely late.

It’s hard to criticize the book for not being something it never set out to be. But I don’t know if it set out to be this way or not. The first few chapters look like they belong in a different plot. Ashamoil is a wonderful place, but I don’t know if it’s meant to carry the book by itself or not. Gwynn is a wonderful character, but I don’t know why the book focused on him and not Raule, after sharing out the first few chapters so evenly between them. I don’t know why the author chose to introduce some of the people she did.

I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.

The fact that almost all the questions, as opposed to just some, go unanswered keeps me from thinking this is pure transformative fantasy. Things change, all right, but which things, and how much, and to what end? Hard to tell.



Final Analysis: This is an idiosyncratic fantasy, so perhaps it’s only right that I give it an idiosyncratic recommendation. Pick up if you’re in the mood for dark, violent, urban fantasy spent with some really different people, and not so much in the mood for a tight plot. Be prepared to be frustrated with some parts of it. Be prepared to be fascinated with others. It’s not a clone of generic fantasy, and in the end, that might be enough. I just didn’t think it was.

Currently reading The Fall of the Kings by Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman, which will be the next review when I’m done.

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