Visions of Paradise

Sunday, February 27, 2005

The Etched City

K. J. Bishop’s The Etched City received amazing reviews for a debut novel, and I started reading it with two frames of mind: How could it possibly be as good as every reviewer claimed, but what if it actually was?

It did not take me long to realize what the reviewers saw in the novel. The Etched City is an absolutely wonderful novel, the best I have read since Perdito Street Station. Bishop has an amazing way with words, as well as a mastery of scenery and setting plus an ability to draw the reader into her world effortlessly and completely. Almost from the first page I felt part of an Old West-type world, traveling with Raule and Gwynn, two former soldiers on the losing side of a war, escaping the victorious army’s moping-up action.

Bishop also demonstrated a deftness with characterization, easily walking the fine line between showing Raule and Gwynn as stereotypical Old West outlaws and two unfortunate people whose civilized nature is unable to grow in their harsh circumstances and surroundings.

They manage to escape their pursuers, and find their way to Ashamoil where Raule became a mostly-unpaid female doctor in a charity hospital in the midst of the city’s worst tenements, while Gwynn becomes a strong-arm bully for the wealthy figure Elm who rules much of the city’s underworld

Much of The Etched City combines a detailed look at life in the underbelly of the city with many philosophical asides as nearly all the characters, no matter how depraved they might be, are seemingly wont to break into philosophical discussion–and while this is the least believable of the book’s several aspects, it provides it a thought-provoking nature that I found fascinating even when I knew it was highly unlikely.

In The Etched City we meet such people as:

> Marriott, a former companion of Gwynn who greases his way into the underworld, but who is much more distressed about the nature of his activities than Gwynn would ever be;

> The Rev, a priest assigned to counsel the sick and pray for the dead in Raule’s hospital, who meets with Gwynn one day a week to share a meal while arguing the existence of God;

> a boy Bellor Vargey who dies in a pointless knife fight with a rival gang member;

> Beth Constanzin, a mysterious artist who uses a glimpse of Gwynn in her painting, thus becoming the object of his obsession;

> Jacope Vargey, brother of Bellor, who upon the death of his mother assumes responsibility for the welfare of his younger sister Emila.

Most of the book concerns the activities of Raule and Gwynn, and how they fit into the everyday life of Ashamoil. Each of them finds emotional symmetry in a lover whose attitude towards life seems to balance their own: Raule with Jacope Vargey, if only briefly, and Gwynn with Beth Constanzin, much longer and considerably deeper.

At times I was reminded of the movie Gangs of New York with the novel’s burrowing itself into the nitty-gritty details of a seemingly-amoral city. The Etched City offers a rich tapestry which is at times brutal and shocking, while at other times hopeful as well. But while Ashamoil might be amoral, The Etched City is not. Death is never cozy, or easy, always bringing with it a price, whether psychological or emotional. This book is not a glorification of death–as novels designed as action thrillers seem to be–but a refutation of it.

And the philosophical moments, especially the luncheon conversations between Gwynn and Rev, while interesting asides early in the book, become more and more important as the book progresses, so that by its conclusion they are ultimately the very core of the novel itself.

This is not a book for readers seeking well-developed plots to the exclusion of setting and characterization, as the latter two aspects dominate The Etched City. There is a plot of sorts, but it comes late in the book. A sideshow strongman named Hart provides evidence to the authorities against Elm, and whose wife is murdered by Elm’s bullies in revenge. Elm decides to avenge himself in turn, and the chess-playing between Elm and Hart becomes the major focus of the novel’s last hundred pages.

If I were to list all the aspects of the “perfect” novel as I see it, The Etched City contains all of them in varying degrees. It is the type of novel which comes along too infrequently, and which I recommend wholeheartedly.


  • The parallel with Gangs of New York makes a lot of sense - well spotted! I recently read and greatly enjoyed this book, and add my recommendation to yours, for what it's worth.

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