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Mike reviews: KJ Bishop's The Etched City

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  • Mike reviews: KJ Bishop's The Etched City

    I reviewed The Etched City for The Guardian.

    Landscape of dreams

    Michael Moorcock marvels at KJ Bishop's debut novel of vision and vitality, The Etched City

    Saturday January 31, 2004
    The Guardian

    Buy The Etched City at
    The Etched City
    by KJ Bishop
    332pp, Tor, £10.99

    Ashamoil, the etched city, survives in a crumbling world of degenerated civilisations in which rival warlords oversee businesses based on gun-running and slaving against a background of vast deserts and impenetrable tropical forests. Ancient canals, inhabited by giant snakes, run through jungles where tigers laze on the stones of forgotten temples. Seers, occultists, mediums and shamans exploit the fears and superstitions of Ashamoil's many inhabitants. Dreams and reality are indistinguishable. Landscape and imagery are as important to KJ Bishop's fantasy as character, but it's a measure of this Australian writer's talent that she is as comfortable with her protagonists as she is with visions and moral complexities.

    The Etched City has all the vitality of a first novel and few of the vices. Any initial meagreness of plot is compensated for by a compelling atmosphere that has something in common with M John Harrison's Viriconium but more closely resembles JG Ballard's The Drowned World or The Drought. Like Ballard (or, indeed, Conrad), Bishop's images possess an authenticity drawn from the Pacific Rim.

    In New Worlds (1964) Ballard said that speculative fiction would never achieve maturity until it possessed the moral authority of a literature won from experience. His observation was the nearest thing we had to a policy or a movement. Without doubt, Bishop's fiction has earned that authority. Moreover, like Ballard's, her characters often reflect new notions of morality. Up to their chins in murder and crime, they have scant chance of old-fashioned redemption. They aren't looking for it, and they don't take it when it's offered.

    There's plenty of moral argument in Bishop's book, but not much that is conventional. Her people pursue strange dreams and carry awkward burdens. They are often not sure of their own reality. Characters wonder if the rest of the world is created from their own imaginations or whether they are the invention of some other individual: she thinks, therefore I am.

    Bishop avoids rationalising her miracles. We are never certain whether or not some of the more bizarre events of the book are dreams. Dreaming does not negate experience here; it's an addition to her lexicon, sharing something with the films of Bergman or the surrealists, underscoring events. In the last third of the novel I became uncertain whether I was reading about a drug fantasy or an actuality. In New Worlds I often argued that we were not, as some contended, getting rid of story, but were finding ways of telling as many stories as possible. That is what Bishop is doing here.

    Gwynn and Raule might have been lovers. They have served in a failed idealistic revolution and, outlawed, taken work as mercenaries. When they reach Ashamoil, Raule attaches herself as a doctor to a hospital helping the city's victims. Gwynn joins the entourage of Ashamoil's most powerful warlord. Like some Mafioso, his life involves long periods of whiling away his time with his fellow "cavaliers", drinking, gaming and whoring, with intermittent calls to sudden, violent action. A sensitive pianist, cynical, pitiless and good at his brutal job, he retains that attractive quality found in the hardboiled heroes of Leigh Brackett, who wrote the lion's share of Hawks's The Big Sleep and whose Martian romances featuring Eric John Stark were such an influence on Bradbury (who, in turn, influenced Ballard). A more sophisticated writer, Bishop shows the same cool-eyed versatility as Brackett.

    Gwynn has one obsession he comes to pursue: the engraver Bethine Constanzin, with whom he falls, perhaps, in love. Her drawings and etchings are described in some detail. Could this sphinx-like woman be the city's creator? The clues Bishop offers to Beth's identity create a dozen potential stories, but it is up to us to follow them through outside the book. Ashamoil, according to these clues, is a city made by art. Is Beth human at all? Is she asking the sphinx's traditional trick questions, or are we inventing the questions for ourselves?

    The last part of The Etched City features various reverses for Raule when she is asked to nurse the warlord's son, wounded by Gwynn's friend, whom in turn Gwynn is ordered to murder. There are reverses, too, for Gwynn and his masters. One of their victims begins to take an astonishing revenge. Flowers blossom in the wounds of dead cavaliers. Beth's work assumes ever stranger forms. The living and the dead become indistinguishable.

    The Etched City is worth reading for these scenes alone, which are among the most mystifying and astonishing I have found in a fantasy. They suggest that, no matter what course Bishop decides to take in the future - and she is as likely to write a novel of character as another imaginative novel - she is bound to attract a wide audience among readers of every taste.

    Michael Moorcock's latest book is London Bone (Scribner).

    Anyone who likes the sound of it can go to The Guardian site, Books, and use their search for either my name or Bishop's. There are also reviews of VanderMeer, Ford, Dick, Anderson and others. Generally speaking, I no longer review books that I don't enjoy (though I found I didn't much like the Dick on rereading).

    I also review regularly for The Daily Telegraph, again mostly books I like, and there's a review of Jacobson's Kalooki Nights about to appear this coming Saturday, I understand. Next book I do for The Guardian is Fortunate Son by Walter Mosley.
    Last edited by David Mosley; 08-12-2006, 01:48 PM.

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  • #3
    Thanks ...... i will buy it !


    • #4
      Morgan, can you post a review in the Books forum when you read it? I just got a copy (not in French, however ), and hope to get to it in the next month. Perhaps we can compare notes.


      • #5
        i bought it to day ....

        it will take some time to finish it !


        • #6
          It may take a while for me to read it, as well. My "to read" pile keeps growing....


          • #7
            I finished this book not too long ago.

            Some random thoughts...
            The comparisons to Mieville are unfair. While both evoke fantastic, surreal images, ignore generic tropes, have unconventional protagonists, and beg for the term "baroque" to describe them, that is where the similarities end. People looking for New Crobuzon might be disappointed. People taking Bishop's work on its own terms will not.

            The last third of the novel nearly left me in a physical daze, and certainly in a mental one. The haze was tangible. I mean this in the most flattering way. The stories in stories unfold in a way that I might find distracting in another novel, but Bishop uses them to layer her story and ideas.

            Perhaps the best thing I can say is that I still think about the novel, and many of the questions it asks, particularly the existential and theological questions.


            • #8
              I'll have to check that one out.