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The Etched City
Reviewed by Iain Emsley, © 2004

Format: Book
By:   K.J. Bishop
Genre:   Fantasy
Released:   February 2003
Review Date:   March 30, 2004
RevSF Rating:   8/10 (What Is This?)

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.


Iain Emsley is a frequent contributor to RevolutionSF.

 
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