Reading K.J. Bishop’s 2003 The Etched City is like bathing in warm honey. There are times the aroma is fresh and the taste sweet, no other cares in the world. Then there are others when one wants to get out of the bath, wash their skin of the sticky, cloying substance, and feel a cool breeze on their skin. One lost in the moment, the other knowing where it’s going, such is the paradoxical experience of Bishop’s first and only published novel to date.
The Etched City is sure to cause a split among readers, especially those coming from a strong Tolkien-esque fantasy background. Though a couple scenes and happenings warrant the categorization, most other aspects remain equivocal parallels to the genre at best. There are no magic swords, wizards, or dragons; only the occasional supernatural event sneaking into the storyline. More in the vein of magic realism, flowers sprout from wounds, humans birth crocodiles, and cigarettes are conjured from thin air - these are the greatest journeys the story takes into the fantastic. Thus, dungeons and dragons fans seeing the awards the book has garnered, be warned.
Whether The Etched City is a novel in the classic tradition, however, is debatable. A second-reading needed to discover if in fact a spine exists, the book is more a collage of vignettes than straightforward storytelling. The narrative describes rather than tells of the lives of Raule the healer, Rev the priest, Lisbeth the artist, and Gwynn the mercenary. Bishop constantly keeping readers at a distance from the characters, substance moves to the forefront. Philosophic dialogue on the nature of religion, metaphysical speculation, and art and the pull of the soul leisurely fill the pages, instead. The narrative is motivated in patches, however. Gang warfare, drugs, prostitution, and other social ills occasionally emerge from the waters below to nudge the plot forward, but overall the book floats rather than swims.
Taking advantage of the set up, Bishop arranges some interesting oppositions: the worldviews of the Rev and Gwynn, the moral orientation and gender roles of Gwynn and Raule, the life’s devotions of Lisbeth and Raule, and so forth. These opposites presented rather than directed, the book is undoubtedly for the reader who prefers the stasis of muse to linear plot movement.
One point I’d like to take issue with is the book’s back cover comparison to Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series and China Mieville’s Bas-Lag. Undoubtedly a marketing ploy, the overall feel of the novel is wholly different than these two authors’ created worlds. Though a hint of resemblance exists (particularly in the opening section’s desert setting to King’s world), the remainder of the scenes in the book are nothing short of an homage to Bishop’s native Australia. The flora and fauna, monsoons and heat, streets and jungles of fictional Ashamoil have more in common with the Northern Territory’s Darwin and Kakadu than any of the filth and squalor of New Crozubon. Secondly, while Mieville details his world a la Peake, Bishop wields her brush only enough to establish tone, the result being that the mind’s eye resides more in the imagination than on paper.
In the end, The Etched City will undoubtedly disappoint readers expecting an oriented plot and empathetic characters. Bishop’s thematic intentions ambivalent at best, an indifference should be expected on the part of the narrator and a vague, magic-realist atmosphere doing nothing to clearly delineate objectives. Like realist novels, the reader should also expect a more than healthy dose of deliberation over a variety of social and human phenomena. A climax of sorts does exist to end the book, but due to the aforementioned attributes, it lacks the impact many readers expect, and therefore must be reckoned with in alternative fashion. Well written, the book is recommended for those who don’t mind a subtle, meandering read set in a surreal world more reminiscent of Kipling than Mieville, themes slowly flowering in afterthought.