January 2004
© 2004 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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The Etched City by K. J. Bishop
Tor UK Trade: ISBN 1405041609 PubDate: 01/01/04
Review by John Berlyne

336 pgs. List price £10.99
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The Etched City, the debut novel from Australian writer K.J. Bishop, is a rich meal in every sense of the word. A vivid, elegant, disturbing and challenging work, it represents the latest from the stable of writers who have come to be referred to as the New Weird. Bishop joins authors such as China Miéville and Jeff Vandermeer, whose writing has transcended conventional genre labels and carried Fantasy and Science Fiction into the realms of “respectable” literature. And Bishop’s novel is very respectable indeed.

The tale tells of two haunted protagonists. Once the leader of a rebellious band involved in some alluded to civil strife, Gwynn, a stylish and hardy adventurer is making his way through the wastelands of the Copper Country. On his journey which starts out in a dry and fly-blown landscape reminiscent of King’s The Gunslinger, he meets up by chance with Raule, a woman who was once assigned to his troupe as a doctor. They travel together, escaping their pursuers through a mixture of guile and luck and arrive at the city of Ashamoil. There they go their separate ways, forging new lives for themselves and their paths cross only occasionally in the novel from thereon in.

Raule, rejected by the official medical establishment as little more than a witch doctor, can only find work in charitable institutions. A grave and tortured soul, her conscience troubled greatly by all she has seen and done, she tends to the poor and underprivileged classes, her pastime to collect and study the deformed foetuses she is called upon to abort. The charismatic Gwynn finds work amongst the criminal upper classes, his role one of hired gun to a Godfather boss who runs the weapons and slaves trades in and out of the city. Gwynn’s is a life of privileged decadence, absolute loyalty and ever present danger, but he finds time for much diversion. One such comes in the form of Beth, an artist who entices and captivates Gwynn. He becomes ensnared as her muse, and in doing so his perceptions of himself and his surroundings melt into a twisted surreal dreamscape.

The plot of The Etched City is far from straightforward. No simple three act structure here. Instead it is fractally connected a work of allegory and metaphor which examines a wide range of deep questions. There are stories within stories, fables, dream sequences, scenes of surreal beauty and horror, theological discourses. The setting is poetic and desolate, the characters enigmatic, remote and brutally attractive, and the language exotic, decorous and pregnant with meaning. There is much for the reader to digest in this work and for some, the amorphous nature of the narrative may be hard to latch on to. Undoubtedly though, K.J. Bishop is an important addition to the New Weird movement and The Etched City catapults her deservedly on to its A list.

© 2004 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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