Book Review: The Etched City

I’d been wanting to start doing some book reviews as I work my way through the massive backlog of bibliage that bows my shelves, but I realize, after a couple tries, that I don’t really enjoy that. I hate doing synopses, and a number of the books I’ve read lately feel a bit beyond the level that my critical skills can fully encompass.

So instead I’m going to try talking about individual concepts that interest me in or around the books I’m reading.

First up is K.J. Bishop’s The Etched City, and asymmetry.

I’ll start by saying that this book is really frickin’ good. Anyone who can pull together flavors of Marquez, Mieville, and Squaresoft into a single book and make it work is doing something right. There’s depth and juice in the worldbuilding, there’s interesting philosophical freight and multifurcate narrative, and there’s a dude who forges his dead wife into a battleaxe. What more could you want?

When I took an initial stab at writing up a review, I had a paragraph about how I felt one of the book’s weaker points was its asymmetry. The book’s first fifty pages are set in a war-ravaged country (this bit read like a novelization of a console RPG in a very weird way), and then the protagonists go to the city of Ashamoil and pretty much stay there for the next three hundred-odd pages. The story is ostensibly a braided narrative about two estranged ex-revolutionaries and their tribulations in Ashamoil, but the vast majority of screen time goes to Gwynn, the brooding badass with the gun and the sword and the other gun.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I think that the asymmetry may be an effective narrative device. It’s unbalancing. You expect the narrative to shift from Gwynn back to Raule any minute now, or from Ashamoil back to the Copper Country or on to some other peregrination, and it consistently doesn’t. The net effect is that you lose your expectations, leaving everything possible. This may be essential to what Bishop is endeavoring.

The Etched City is basically magical realism set in a constructed world, which I’ve never seen before. Constructed-world fantasy tends to be naturalistic; the given circumstances may be different, but the world’s details proceed logically and predictably from those given circumstances. This is typically because it’s hard to make a story work when the audience lacks a touchstone to orient themselves by. In most magical realism, the familiarity of the real world is the axis mundi which makes the dream logic of the narrative comprehensible. Constructed-world magical realism lacks this anchor. I’m not sure how Bishop pulls it off, but my hypothesis is that she starts off with a fairly gritty, naturalistic base (the section in the Copper Country) and then uses distancing techniques like asymmetry to slowly ease the reader into the more dreamlike world of the later Ashamoil sections.

I have trouble describing this book in ways that don’t make it sound disastrous, but somehow it works. I recommend it highly.

Originally published on LiveJournal