My random pick for a book review this week is the lovely Steampunk story from 2004. And by lovely, I mean strange. Really strange. And by story, I mean a collection of things that happen in a roughly linear timeframe to characters who don’t really have a concrete motivation and you’re not entirely sure what happens to them by the end.
Come to think of it, this isn’t really a Steampunk book either. Gaslamp fantasy, maybe, but set on a different world where all the plants and animals are the same, so you don’t have to worry about whether or not this really meshes with history and the author didn’t have to make up any new life forms.
The Etched City is K.J. Bishop’s first (and so far only) novel. The press release compared it to the works of China Mieville; I can’t really say I agree, but it certainly is the kind of fascinating writing that I can just fall into for days at a time, even if I’m not always one hundred percent sure I know what’s going on.
The start of the book is fairly straightforward. Gwynn and Raule, former revolutionaries and comrades-in-arms, are fleeing a failed revolution and a price on their heads. They have several narrow escapes, a gunfight over a card game, and they very nearly die of thirst trying to cross a Middle-Eastern-like desert. Gwynn’s skills as a gunslinger, his legendary sword Gol’achab (which translates to “Not My Funeral”) and his devil-may-care attitude all make survival a little easier, but it’s the doctor Raule’s determination to make something, anything, out of her life that gets the two of them out of the desert and on the way to the tropical city of Ashamoil.
“Has it occurred to you that if you didn’t leave little piles of corpses everywhere you go, you’d be harder to track?”
“I’ve tried, but things always seem to snowball.”
In any other book this would be the start of an epic journey to a place that may or may not be paradise. But no, we have maybe four pages after Raule’s decision, and then suddenly we’re in the middle of Ashamoil, months after the two of them have already settled into their new lives. And that’s where they stay, for most of the rest of the book. There’s no traditional hero’s journey for either of them; they’re both content to stay exactly where they are, and the story ends up happening all around them.
Raule and Gwynn are fascinating characters. The author gives them a lot of cutting, irreverent dialog, and they’re both utterly fearless. They’re also not even close to what you would call “nice”. Raule’s sense of compassion was burned out at some point during the war, and even though she works for practically nothing at a charity hospital in the poorest district in the Ashamoil, she blames this on her “phantom conscience” that makes her do what’s right, rather than, y’know, actually caring about anyone. (She also has a hobby of collecting deformed stillbirths at ten pence a pound, which is more than a little unsettling.) Raule gets a relatively small portion of the book since her life is dreary and mostly without a lot of purpose.
Gwynn’s life doesn’t have much more purpose than Raule’s, but his chapters are always filled with random adventure, and carousing, and murder. He’s completely amoral; his first act upon arriving at Ashamoil was to get hired on as muscle for the city’s richest slaver, so in between acting as an overseer at the slave markets he gets to run around threatening people, assassinating problems (even ones that used to be comrades), and otherwise being a horrible person. In his free time he parties, drinks, and takes only the best recreational drugs. And yet his chapters are always entertaining because he’s charming and intelligent, a lover of art, a talented pianist, and he’s never offended when someone points out how awful he’s being because he has exactly zero illusions about what he is.
“Doctor,” he greeted her with a slight formal bow.
“Slaver’s henchman,” she greeted him in reply.
He sighed. “Do we have to?”
“No, but I like to. Sit down.”
In many ways the book is a collection of interconnecting stories, ones that wander around more or less near Gwynn and Raule. Characters like the degenerate priest, the kind-hearted strongman, the heartsick mercenary, and the mysterious red-haired artist all have their individual story arcs, but sometimes their stories end so fast that I was left thinking “Oh, well…oh. Okay then.” In the case of Beth the artist I’m still not even sure what her goal was, much less whether she reached it or not.
So the stories are always intriguing, but it’s the details of the world that Bishop created that’s the real draw for this book. The marketplace, the fashions that crop up during the monsoon season, the political makeup, the architecture, the drugs, the art (oh yes, most definitely the art), even the reason why the days of the week were named after long-dead traitors, it’s as if the author wanted to completely immerse the reader in every single aspect of this civilization, to the point where the story is secondary to the setting.
The fantasy element kicks in towards the last hundred or so pages, but any kind of supernatural happening feels like it could a symptom of some kind of tropical fever, or a dream, or a near-death experience, or a hallucinogen like the one Gwynn takes that lets him have a philosophical discussion with his horse. Bishop’s elaborate prose is sometimes wistful, sometimes gritty and violent, and always filled with metaphors. Artwork blends with drunken religious arguments, acts of revenge get mistaken for political backstabbing, and everyone seems to give up on making any kind of sense right before the book ends with the appearance of a god and an act of petty vandalism.
“God is not tame. God is the dancing stork in the water meadow and the tiger in the night.
So yes, this novel is all over the place. At one point Gwynn’s apothecary (ie: drug pusher) opens a cabinet that’s filled with lots of little glass-fronted drawers, and that seems to be the closest example of what the book is like: a strange and beautiful curiosity cabinet, filled with random things that are sorted by a system that may be impossible to figure out, but which you could spend days looking through without ever getting bored.