The Etched City, by K. J. Bishop (2003) E

Date Read: 5.24.09
Book From: Borrowed from kakaner
Reviewer: Emera

The Etched City is one of the most memorable books I’ve read this year, and certainly one of the best and most memorable fantasy books I have ever read. I hate to make hand-waving pronouncements like that, but I really can’t think of any other way to begin this review.

The book follows two protagonists, both wanted for having fought on the losing side of a civil war: Raule, an emotionally deadened physician, and Gwynn, an elegant, amoral, and apparently indestructible gun- and swordsman. Somewhat begrudgingly reunited by circumstance, the two flee the Copper Country, to lose themselves in what Raule prematurely hopes will be a “proper” civilization.

Bishop’s writing in the beginning is stark and straightforward, but daubed with bursts of unexpected vividness, as she describes the Copper Country, a searing, deathly land that seems equal parts Middle East, American Old West, and Australian outback. The scenes are painted with a memorable and somehow terrible clarity – there’s a frightening kind of oppression and lostness to the Copper Country, with its sand-channeled beds of nail grass, black ruins, and rotting hamlets whose stillness is punctuated only by gunfights. (The book opens with a gratifying bang, as a four-man gunfight ends in the shooting and decapitation of three of the four.) The weight of the country, the sense of both mythic and mundane desolation, actually reminded me of many scenes in Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea Cycle.

As the scene suddenly shifts to the languorous, waterlogged city of Ashamoil, Bishop’s voice somehow retains its precision at the same time that it gleefully unfolds the rich, grimy layers of the city. (The cover art on the edition that I read was perfectly apropos – a pair of bees investigating the glistening innards of a split pomegranate.) Here, Raule consigns herself to backbreaking work as a doctor in the slums, while Gwynn rises to wealth and comfort as one of the privileged enforcers of a corrupt, gun-running magnate. I was constantly surprised and delighted by the urbanity, inventiveness, and thoughtfulness of Bishop’s narrative voice, that offhandedly mixes airily poetic lines like, “For now, the streets were still innocent of perambulators and piemen” with clinical observations of deformed fetuses in jars. Here, too, the narrative takes on deliciously surreal shades of magical realism, as when Gwynn wanders markets and bars in a drug-fueled haze ridden with allegories of minotaurs, prisoners, and marionettes, before politely extracting himself from the extended hallucinated-or-real journey and venturing off in search of his real object, a red-haired artist with the face of a sphinx.

As much as the languidly meandering plot can be said to have a focus, Gwynn’s relationship with the artist does become one of the main fulcrums of the book’s later events, which become increasingly dark, desperate, and strange. Much of the first half of the book is almost determinedly mundane, only occasionally and briefly slipping sideways into the weird shadow-world that seems to lie in the same space as (or just next to, or on top of, or under) the worldly Ashamoil. As the book continues, it topples irrevocably into Weird, and I as a reader felt an increasing sense of fear, wonder, and loss of control, that mirrors Gwynn’s own journey.

The Etched City is one of the only books that I’ve read that left me feeling as though I had been touched by the uncanny. For me, it was the sensation that something nameless has slipped by you in the dark, so that you’re left with only the primal knowledge that something has passed that is beyond your understanding. The French equivalent, l’inquiétante étrangeté, unsettling strangeness, is also a great encapsulation. I also felt strangely bereft at the end of the novel: Raule and Gwynn, though by rights terribly unsympathetic as protagonists go, are both deeply sad characters, and the ways in which their stories end seemed to me equally so (perhaps rather less in the case of Gwynn). There are few, if any, moments of triumph in this book, and more often than not they’re bewildering, and trail off into unresolved threads.

I’d definitely like to devote more time later to unpacking some of the dense theological, moral, and aesthetic discussion that Bishop weaves into the plot with (it seems to me) alarming ease; they’re central to the story’s events and character development, as well as simply being thought-provoking. And I feel as though I could talk about the characters alone for hours; though many of them are only characterized in depth in one or two scenes, you get an intimate sense of their whole natures from those glimpses alone.

Oddly, when beginning the novel, the first comparison that jumped into my head wasn’t Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, but Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint, arguably because it’s fresher in my mind, as the last fantasy novel read to make a really big impression on me. (The last time I read PSS was three years ago, so I can’t remember its emotional impact as viscerally anymore.) Regardless, I think Kushner and Bishop are definitely comparable in their skills as world-builders, character developers, and elegant, witty, literate stylists. It’s also tempting to me to draw comparisons between Gwynn and Kushner’s consummate swordsman Richard, though only to a point – the point being that at which The Etched City escapes reality.

I should stop talking now, so I’m just going to say that while The Etched City may not be to all tastes, it definitely suited mine. If you like world-building, anti-heroes, the surreal, heady philosophical games, unconventional and literary fantasy – go for it.

Also, a cigarette brand being named Auto-da-Fé is one of my Favorite Things EVER.

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K. J. Bishop

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  1. Vega’s avatar

    Your review reminds me why I loved this book so much. Interestingly enough, I thought Valente’s In the Night Garden was greatly reminiscent of The Etched City, as far as mood and style is concerned. What do both of you think?

    I really can’t wait to see what else Bishop will come up with — last I heard she had some projects in the pipeline (including short stories), it’s a pity that her works appear few and far between!

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  2. Emera’s avatar

    I actually haven’t read In the Night Garden yet, though Kakaner’s lent me her copy. From my my little samplings of Valente’s fiction here and there, though, I can see what you mean – Valente definitely has that literary playfulness and assured, elegant, half-surreal style.

    I know, I’m really hankering for more of Bishop’s work, but so far have only been able to find one of her short stories reprinted online (review forthcoming). But according to her blog, she’s planning on releasing a collection of her short fiction (old + a few new) next year! *crosses fingers*

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