Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Etched City

K.J. Bishop's book, The Etched City, is touted as one of the examples of the New Weird genre. Yes, that's right, there's a new weird - didn't you get the memo? You can throw out that old one you've still got in the cupboard under the stairs.

Anyway, this genre is all about things not being quite right, a slowly creeping wrongness in an otherwise normal(ish) world. This story about a charmingly dodgy man in a city full of dodgy people manages that very well. It starts off quite slowly, but gathers a lot of momentum and it is worth sticking it out to the end.

The main character is a slave-trading gunslinger of limited morality but a lot of style. He has a priest friend that regularly attempts to save his soul, in the hope that this will also redeem his own. Like Jeff Vandermeer's Ambergris or Mieville's New Crobuzon, the city of Ashamoil functions as another of the characters in the book. Bishop conveys the feeling of a fully working city, with this only one of the many stories taking place.

Remember, though, that this is New Weird. So that means ambiguously prophetic dream sequences, random encounters with odd stuff for symbolic purposes and artificially erudite conversations that are all about the nature of things and what it means to be real. That's not to say I didn't like the book, I did - it's very good. But there were sections where I didn't entirely understand what the characters were on about. That might just be me, though - too much booze has rotted what few brain cells I started out with.

There were also a few instances of rather confusing language, which just kicked me right out of the world and back onto the train, scratching my head and trying to work out what the fudge a "baleful quiddity" was. I like to think of myself as having a better than average vocabularly (much as I like to think of myself as a swashbuckling space pirate on occasion), but Bishop seems to delight in the perversely obscure areas of the dictionary. Sacrificing immersion and narrative flow for some flowery prose just annoys me, but maybe that's some people's definition of "literary fiction".

Altogether it's a fine read, though. I'd recommend it to anyone who liked 'City of Saints and Madmen', although I wasn't as bowled-over by this as I was by Vandermeer's work.

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