In his debut novel, The Vorrh, Brian Catling offers readers a fantasy in the tradition of Mervyn Peake’s GORMENGHAST novels rather than Tolkien’s THE LORD OF THE RINGS. The characters do surprising and often incredible things, they explore an African wilderness rarely seen in fantasy, and they sometimes manage to inspire the reader to imagine what it would be like to live in such a fantastic setting.
There is a surreal quality to The Vorrh that rarely shows up in the fantasy we talk about when we talk about fantasy. The Vorrh is inspired by neither Camelot nor Beowulf; instead, Catling has chosen to set his story in central Africa during an Imperial Age. The Vorrh, a massive, mythical forest, is inspired by Raymond Roussel’s novel Impressions of Africa. The forest is overwhelming, and Catling does not try to frame the narrative in such a way that it will be easy to figure out the exact nature of its influence over his characters or even over the plot.
Who gets to react to the forest and its influence? The Bowman faces off against a rival armed with a rifle. Ishmael is a cyclops studying the abstract as well as the physical nature of his existence. We explore his studies from the point of view of his unusual tutors. Eadward Muybridge, meanwhile, is “just” a photographer.
While there are characters, I found it hard to view them as more than peripheral beings. What The Vorrh offers, even when it’s only visiting colonial hotels, is a gateway into something that feels foreign and outside of the everyday. The novel is foreign to much of SFF in part because it is set in Africa rather than Medieval Europe. However, it often feels foreign for more primal reasons. Our magical bow is made out of the Bowman’s lover, which might form the arc for another SFF writer’s trilogy of novels. Here, it is one of the first disorienting details we are treated to.
Catling’s most sympathetic readers will be those that recognize that foreign quality imbued in his work as something truly “fantastic” amongst all of the fantasy novels on their shelves. Having said that, the focus on atmosphere makes it difficult to focus on the plot. There are quests, vendettas, and comings-of-age, but none of them feel like the focus of the novel. The plot is slow and, at times, the characters are less compelling than they might be. To be honest, I often felt as though I needed to refocus on experiencing something exotic, rather than trying to invest in the plot or figure out the characters.
The feeling of having escaped the mundane is central to The Vorrh. One could argue that offering readers a glimpse at something unusual — something fundamentally outside of our experiences — is fantasy’s highest calling. If so, Catling’s The Vorrh pays aesthetic dividends. However, readers looking for a gripping plot, something akin to a thrilling fantasy, however familiar in its broad strokes, should look elsewhere. Catling is attempting to turn over new ground.