Over the last few years, the fantastic has started undergoing a radical change.
The young Turks, including China Mieville, Jeff VanderMeer and Jeffrey Ford,
have taken over the asylum with the idea of a free-range fantastic, one that
slithers and slides in its often wonderful oddity . And they have reintroduced
the weird and inventive side of genre fiction, ranging from Clark Ashton Smith
and William Hope Hodgson to Mervyn Peake and M. John Harrison, to a readership
fed on a diet of pale post-Tolkien epics.
K.J. Bishop joins this vanguard of literary beserkers with her slim, delirium-inducing
debut novel, The Etched City.
A healer and a killer come to the city of Ashamoil, trying to escape the ghosts
of their pasts in the Copper County. But neither can truly escape their pasts,
which soon draw them back into their respective roles and tasks.
A conundrum is represented by a painting of the city. In its centre is a house
with a trapezoid window, which Gwynn, the killer, comes across during his travels.
It is owned by an artist, Beth, with whom he falls in love. Out of this union
comes a dialogue that is reminiscent of tegeus-Cromis in M. John Harrison's
The Pastel City, the doleful knight who would rather be a poet than his
true self. Beth and Gwynn explore the nature of art and symbolism as the artistic
and real worlds collide and intermingle, leaving the reader to marvel at the
bravery and perception that Bishop brings to their debate. But then Gwynn is
drawn into a plot to murder a rival, and a confrontation with a criminal leader
makes for his expulsion from the city.
Raule, the healer, is caught up in her own variety of miracle as she delivers
a baby with the head of crocodile, conceived in Leda-like fashion. She becomes
involved with a corrupt preacher in this city of miracles, leading him to his
own salvation (of a sort). But even she is not safe from her own past, and soon
she must leave the city as she becomes more unstable. It is never certain whether
she is, in some way, actually the cause for these strange events.
Bishop develops her characters from cyphers into stones dropped into the centre
of a pond. As the concentric ripples spread, so does the chaos. Once the meniscus
of supposed order has moved, it releases a flurry of life and energy, allowing
Bishop to draw out larger themes and develop them with a rarely matched panache.
Influences range from Baudelaire to Oscar Wilde and the modern fantasists, with
shades of Hieronymous Bosch.
The Etched City is a vivid and colourful novel, unafraid to experiment
with itself and with its own form. It is a trippy novel; the unwary reader will
be caught between layers of reality and unreality, and of myth and story, but
it delivers satisfaction at its conclusion. It is simultaneously modern and
old, taking in both the New Weird and the New Wave. Bishop demonstrates a maturity
of writing and a control of the weird, in many of its shapes and forms, which
is to be envied and enjoyed.