Etched City, The by K.J. Bishop


In The Etched City, K.J. Bishop brings to light many themes – love, death, theology, and art. These are some of the Big themes of life and in the pages of her enchanting first novel, she manages to cull them together as consistent and stimulating threads part of the larger conversation. The Etched City is a fairly packed novel, considering its page-count is just over 375 pages, and it does require more than mere skimming.

In the seemingly barren landscape of this novel, we are introduced to Raule the surgeon and Gwynn the gunslinger. After being separated for quite a bit, Raule stumbles into Gwynn in a saloon while he is in the midst of a card game. Both served together on the losing side of a revolution, recently ended by the Army of Heroes. Immediately, this begs a question – what sort of people are Raule and Gwynn? Are they “good guys,” are they “bad guys,” or are they simply two people with strong enough convictions to fight for what they believed in? With the focus on Gwynn and Raule throughout the novel, little focus is give to the Army of Heroes, and therefore an auspicious tone is set with Gwynn and Raule, especially Gwynn as the protagonist of this novel.

Raule is often uncomfortable in Gwynn’s presence, and with good reason – as a Gunslinger, Gwynn is a killer. Raule begrudgingly joins Gwynn on his journey to Ashamoil, a far away city, across the barren land. Ashamoil is not the most happy-go lucky of towns you will come across in your readings, it has an open slave trade, waterways are infested with monstrous crocodiles and many of the pregnant women give birth to odd, carnival-esque stillbirths. Raule has landed an appointment as a town doctor in a church-run hospital, which has garnered her with a label as a witch doctor. It is through her eyes we see these strange births, often dead on arrival, for example, a baby born with an alligator head and a human body. In an almost Lovecraftian manner, the jars on her shelf are described as containing the dead fetuses of these oddities.

Gwynn is appointed as a bodyguard, eventually the top mercenary bodyguard, and his story takes center stage once he and Raule arrive in Asamoil. This is where the story takes a more philosophical bent, as Gwynn befriends a priestly character named Rev and throughout the remainder of the novel, they meet regularly to debate theology, salvation and Gwynn’s place in the world. Rev is far from being a completely perfect human being, one of his flaws is his drinking problem. This is consistent with the majority of the characters – none are perfect, they are all flawed and most are uncertain about their place in the world.

In his meanderings through Asamoil, Gwynn comes across a very intriguing piece of art, an etching depicting a Basilisk. Gwynn decides he must meet the creator of this artwork. Through a dream-like jaunt through the surreal, Gwynn meets this sensual, very enigmatic woman, Beth. I find it interesting, that perhaps the most fantastical character in the novel, has one of the more mundane names, a name we can all recognize. Names can be viewed as a powerful thing, and a through the art of the character with the more mundane name, we see fantastical images and slips of reality. Gwynn is enthralled by her and begins to question his reality. In addition to her having a name quite different from the rest, Beth is the character, unlike many of the others, who seems most assured about her place in the world of the novel. It is through art (be it song, word or painting) we can see the external expression of our internal thoughts, beliefs of our self, our place in the world, and life and death. Art is a concrete thing, which can encapsulate that which we ponder abstractly, these are the things we seek to understand, and Bishop, through Gwynn’s interactions with Beth, their conversations of life and art, and Gwynn’s conversations with Rev of theology, leaves Gwynn with more questions of this nature than answers.

These questions of reality and our place in the world are at the core of speculative fiction. Throughout The Etched City, Bishop uses this ideal as a tool very effectively, invoking numerous ways through the eyes of her characters, in which we can question their world, and in turn, our own reality. This is not to say the novel is entirely concerned with philosophy, for Bishop has a knack for writing philosophical debates as well as bloody battles. The physical interactions and fights were as stimulating as the philosophical debates.

The blurbs on the front cover liken The Etched City to both Stephen King’s Dark Tower and Miéville’s Perdido Street Station. As I’ve read both of those works I can say it is a relatively fair comparison, all three of these fantastical works lie at a crossroad of genre. With the desolate, shifting settings, Bishop evokes the barren landscape of “slippage” and western theme familiar to King’s work. With characters like Rev growing insects out of his hands and an oddity with a flower growing out if his belly, Bishop brings to mind the weirdness of Miéville’s work. It is also a little unfair to characterize an author’s first novel in such a manner, King is a brand name and Miéville is, considered by many, to be a standard bearer for a reinvigoration of the genre and a “poster boy” for what has been called the New Weird. Though there are similarities, Bishop has created a very unique story here, but a story that also embraces those great tenets of speculative fiction – there is a sense of wonder and her work does truly make you consider the nature of reality. The magic and fantastical elements are subtler than a dragon or powerful mage, and these elements come across as simply part of the landscape. I would also have to compare The Etched City to Jeffrey Ford’s amazing World Fantasy Award winning novel, The Physiognomy, in that Bishop has managed to invoke all the spirits of what makes fantasy/speculative fiction great and enjoyable without touting out the dwarven/elven/Dark Overlord clichés (which is not to say these clichés can’t be used effectively). There were some minor spots where the pacing was a little uneven and slow, but on the whole, The Etched City is an extremely impressive debut by an author who, based upon this novel and the deserved acclaim it has received, looks to forge a very unique storytelling career.

© 2004 Rob H. Bedford

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