Sometimes you worry that when you return to a book that you love that the years have not been kind to it, and that nostalgia is doing a lot of the work in your head when you think back. Now, I loved The Etched City the last time I read it, and in rereading it every great memory I had of it was reaffirmed, and I can safely say that it is still in my top ten books of the last ten years as we approach the end of the decade. The novel is dark and decadent, with lush prose, complicated characters, and a wonderful imagination. Despite knowing what happens I still didn’t want the book to end.
Bishop’s world draws you in, from its beginnings in the western-esque Copper Country, reminiscent of Moorcock’s Second Ether series, to the decaying city Ashamoil, which brings to mind a tropical Viriconium or Ambergris, and is worthy of such comparisons. Like many of the works considered to be New Weird, the influence of Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror hangs over the novel, both in its apparent homage to the surrealists and its complicated ethics.
Gwynn, although perhaps not as overtly evil as Lautréamont’s protagonist, has no problem amending his ethics in order to do what he needs to in order to survive, including torture and betraying his friends, and he continues to reject the Rev’s god even in the face of a miracle. The world is straight forward to him and he is a very practical character, he has no problem with working with an arms dealer and slaver, Elm, when he arrives in Ashamoil because it is a way for him to earn money. He is firmly grounded in reality. When the surreal begins to pervert the real, like when he finds the red thread on his quest for Beth, or the flowers that bloom in the wounds of his fallen comrades, he finds it hard to accept because of his world view.
Beth, on the hand, works hard to bring these things into the world through acts of creation. She seeks out Gwynn to be her monster, and creates an etching of a red headed sphinx that eventually leads him to her at her studio on the crane stair. She sees as world as having lost its power, through the loss of the meaning that we give to things which gives them power. This idea serves as a major catalyst in the story as the instrument of the strongman’s revenge for the death of his wife is an axe forged from his sorrow, hatred, and her corpse. This idea of transcendence of art through violence appears again and again in what is considered New Weird fiction, and as Paul Jessup reminded me earlier it seems on some level to come from transgressive body horror, but I think there is something else there. The idea of violence acting as some sort of firing in a crucible for the artist, in essence a sort of trial via radical violence. Through Beth, Gwynn is changed, but perhaps not into what she wanted him to become.
Violence is a key theme for the other characters in the novel as well. Poor Marriott spends his life trying to make up for his crime when he was a youth, which eventually dooms him, which leaves him unhinged and leads to his death at the hands of his best friend. Gwynn’s former companion in the opening section of the book, Raule, has lost her compassion having watched Gwynn butcher a potentially innocent youth and felt nothing, but towards the end of the novel she affirms her belief in good over evil in one violent act against Gwynn’s employer. Finally, there is the Rev, a priest who has lost his faith and spends his time arguing with Gwynn, believing that if he can save his soul then he can save his own. The Rev once had everything that he wanted, but lost it all through an act of great violence, and he dies taking violence unto himself in one last ditch attempt to save Gwynn’s soul. Although he ultimately fails there is no doubt Gwynn is changed by the Rev’s sacrifice.
The Etched City has been called a novel in which nothing happens, but that to me seems disingenuous, as while it does eschew a traditional linear plot structure, it is focused instead on the characters, and what wonderfully complex characters they are. Bishop straddles the line between the real and the magical, never trying to rationalize her fantasy, and leaving the reader to decide what is real and what is dream. In a world of shades of grey where nobody gets what they want or even what they deserve, Bishop gives us a powerful novel about people and what makes them tick, and despite the ethical questions and surreal magicks, at the heart lies a very human sort of empathy.