07 March 2004

The Etched City by K.J. Bishop

Even though it was only published recently, I feel like I'm terribly late coming to The Etched City, the breathtaking first novel of K.J. Bishop. After all, Michael Moorcock reviewed the darn thing perfectly, as did Cheryl Morgan (with some good notes on alchemy in it). You must have heard about the book by now, and if you haven't gotten hold of a copy ... well, don't blame me.

If your copy of the book is sitting in a big pile of books you're hoping to get to sometime before the heat death of the universe, let me suggest that you move it up to the top. It should be the next thing you read. You'll be thankful.

It is conceivable that someone somewhere could be blind to the wonders of this novel, so let me explain what makes it so good.

The Etched City takes place in a vivid world, one described in prose that often soars and reminds you of what the English language is capable of accomplishing. Many comparisons have been made to Perdido Street Station and City of Saints and Madmen, and the comparisons are apt -- if you liked experiencing the worlds of those books, you'll like The Etched City. (If you didn't like those books, then you're beyond my help, as I thought they were two of the best books I read last year, in or out of the SF field.)

But the comparisons don't do any of the authors justice, because they've all created uniquely compelling worlds, and their ways of exploring those worlds are quite different.

One of K.J. Bishop's many accomplishments is that she has written a novel which is a compelling read, but in which plot is a minor element. It's there, particularly in the second half, but this is not a book about cause and effect or Aristotelian structure (which is really neoclassic and not Aristotelian, but I digress...). Things happen, and quite quickly, but not until the end do events lead directly into the next events; rather, the book is about the effect of events on the two main characters, and it is the effect, both psychological and emotional, that matters. Though separated into three sections, The Etched City isn't based on any sort of traditional three-act form. The first section introduces us to the characters and their world, and the impact of the events in that section on the characters' personalities propels us into the second section, which is primarily concerned with the implications of the violence on the characters' minds and ethics. The third section then takes the various emotional and moral forces and shows what sorts of actions they lead to.

I'm making it all sound much more dull than it is. Unless you're a congenitally analytical reader, you probably won't notice the story's structure. Instead, you will be fascinated by the characters, the settings, the imagery, and the dance of those elements working together will move you on to the next page and the next. Just when you think you've figured out where the tale is going, just when you think you understand What It All Means, you'll be surprised (for a brief moment, I thought the book was entering Left Behind territory -- thankfully, I was completely wrong). Bishop mixes elements of dark fantasy with spaghetti westerns, gangster stories, surrealism, theology, aesthetic theory, and plenty else. In addition to being entertaining and compulsively readable, The Etched City provides plenty of intellectual pleasure, though Bishop doesn't make the mistake of many young writers who raise provocative questions (moral, political, artistic) and promptly give us their own simplistic answers. Like life, there are important questions here; the answers, though, are elusive.

There is much I love about this novel, but perhaps what I found most remarkable is something I find many of even the best novels lack: a profound, transcendental empathy. One of the things fiction does best is allow readers intimate contact with the minds of people who, in life, they might dismiss, and Bishop uses this quality to its best effect -- we are brought into the minds and lives of many characters, some of whom are in opposition to each other. When the oppositions lead to violence, as they so often do in this world, we feel the weight of wounds and death. There are an awful lot of corpses strewn through the pages of The Etched City, but I can think of few novels which allow us to care so much about so many deaths. At a time when books and movies are full of people being shot, stabbed, and blown to bits by the hundreds and thousands, we need more books like The Etched City -- books which don't shy away from the brutalities of life, but which also make us face the brutality and realize that every death is an individual one.

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