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The Etched City

KJ Bishop

Prime Books

US Trade Paperback First

ISBN 1-894-81522-X

Publication Date: 02-01-2003

332 Pages; $16.95

Date Reviewed: 12-09-03

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2003




Tell someone you're reading a fantasy novel and the chances are they'll think you've got yourself a handful of elves, dwarves and crotchety sorcerers. It doesn't have to be that way. Fantasy fiction actually allows for any kind of invention, from the simple insertion of a supernatural entity into an otherwise droll reality to the creation of an entirely imagined droll reality that differs from ours in some significant fashion. Rather then being a subset of science fiction or horror, it happens that both science fiction and horror are subsets of fantasy, albeit subsets with particular genre tropes developed largely over the last fifty years. In those fifty years, however, the fantasy genre as understood by the publishers and marketers of fiction has taken on its own particular sets of tropes, the dominant set being what might be called Generic Celtic Fantasy -- elves, dwarves, warriors and wizards. This is a shame because for a large section of readers, these figures have little relevance or interest. They certainly don't speak to the lives of the average city dweller, who stays and lives largely in one place, works at one job (after another after another), comes back at the end of the day to one home -- often via the omnipresent pub -- and generally considers a police-stop inspired traffic jam as a sort of adventure.

Fortunately, if writers like KJ Bishop have their way, soon there will soon be no simple norm for fantasy fiction. Bishop's first novel, 'The Etched City', carries with it the confidence of years of writing. Her authority is unshakeable, her prose offers the proper mix of lyricism and cynicism, and her vision of a mundane but very different reality is enchanting. And amidst all this unstoppable invention move characters that have concerns not unlike those of us hoping that the traffic jam we're stuck in is the result of a cop-stop, not just too many people in the same place going the same way.

This is not to say that 'The Etched City' is itself a mundane novel. As the story starts, Raule, a woman who could have been a great surgeon but is now mostly a wandering medicine vendor, is, well, wandering in the desert. There she meets up with Gwynn a mercenary and an old acquaintance from the failed revolution. They outrun some faceless troops hoping to cash in on their heads and manage to disappear into the big city of Ashamoil. There they create careers and little lives for themselves, moving forward slowly living one day at a time.

Bishop's world is nicely conceived and easily re-created in the reader's mind. There's not a lot of magic about, and the technology level seems to be in the mid-1800's, as far as our world would have it. That gives her the opportunity to create a wasteland and a city that seem simultaneously familiar and strange. Gwynn finds work as a gunsel for one of the city's top slave traders, while Raule, financially unable to get a foothold in the city's official medical establishment, works in a charitable hospital run by nuns. Gwynn becomes infatuated and eventually involved with a wild-woman artist of surreal etchings. Raule watches and waits for the violence inevitable in his trade to come his way.

Bishop's pacing is at first languid, though she keeps the reader fixed with lovely language and a nicely planned introduction to her created world. It's familiar enough so that the culture shock is entertaining, not off-putting. She also manages to involve her characters in conversations that are thought-provokingly philosophical without seeming forced. Gwynn's drinking buddy, the Rev is largely responsible for this. He's a so-called holy man who is trying to win Gwynn over in a series of nicely phrased arguments. Their drinking sessions are some of the highlights of the novel.

Bishop paces the novel with a unique and fascinating device. Oh, there's enough action, thanks to Gwynn's livelihood. And let me take this opportunity to say that more women should write battle scenes. Bishop's are amongst the best I've read, intense but not over the top, and never a simple repetition of "he swings, she swings" sword fighting. The violence takes its toll, and it's heavy but not heavy-handed. But the action scenes don't pace the novel so much as a slow slide into the slightly surreal that's triggered via some of the more interesting philosophical threads. These are ideas that science fiction readers might identify have a source outside of the "fantasy" genre, unless, of course, you're talking about the fantasy of KJ Bishop, which opens an umbrella over all of imaginative fiction. As art becomes more entwined with reality, the understated but undeniably weird happenings take on a more threatening aspect. Are they just anomalous events, or is there a thread that ties them together? Readers will find the pages turning ever faster as they strive to find out.

Bishop manages an ending that's satisfyingly conclusive with an appropriate amount of ambiguity. 'The Etched City' is not necessarily the beginning of a series, though readers might wish for Bishop to visit this particular world again. But throughout the novel, it's clear the real strength of 'The Etched City' is not the genre, not the imaginary elements, but rather the writing skills on display. Bishop can write well enough to create a world and make both the world and the characters who inhabit it come alive for the reader. No matter what world she writes about, be it this one, another of her choosing or creation, or the real world, it's clear that KJ Bishop's writing will be entertaining, thoughtful, and just skewed enough to offer a nice new take on our world. And that's what the current generation of fantasy readers is looking for. We don't want a handful of dwarves; we want a fistful of fascination.