Human nature demands that we apply narratives to both our lives and our history. It is, after all, how we think, a quirk of the brain's memory-storage system that compels us to turn everything we are and everything we were into a chronicle. But these narratives, embellished over time, are deceptive. They are assemblages of events which, individually, had no meaning, or pattern. They were simply events, things that happened in spacetime that do not have to be governed by the laws of cause and effect. It is merely hindsight that prompts us to gather up these disparate threads and weave them into a meaningful tapestry, a portrait that applies some kind of order to the randomness of life. Though Ms. Bishop's dreamy, Gothic adventure is animated by the nightmarish, the grotesque and the painfully realistic, it is this absence of gilded history, this jagged dislocation, that underpins the piece.
In a world of deserts and snow, of sun and ice, the Copper Country is some of the deadliest territory imaginable. Riven by war and treachery, these dusty plains are antithetical to a long and fruitful existence. Yes, bounty hunters and brigands can find much coin here, but what happens when that life grows too hard, when ones luck has run as dry as the earth? Then one has but two options, death or a new beginning, elsewhere, in a place of meager hopes and fantastic dreams.
Raule and Gwynn, once friends and mercenaries, have chosen survival over an anonymous death in the baking sands. Teaming up on the road, the female doctor and the male gunslinger ride for Ashamoil, a sodden city on the edge of the tropics which, far from being a respite from the lives they've known, seems to harbor magic and nightmares all its own. Having fended off their vengeful pursuers -- ex-colleagues from the old country --, Raule sets out her shingle in a hospital run by nuns, trying in some small way to turn away from her past. Gwynn, however, is unrepentant, signing on with a powerful crew of cutthroats who more or less operate autonomously within this humid outpost of civilization. As Raule buries herself in healing work and Gwynn lives the life of a mercenary soldier -- killing, drinking, whoring --, their orbits drift apart, but when war comes to town, setting off a chain reaction of increasingly violent incidents, their worlds will once again overlap, much to their pains and their cost.
The Etched City is without doubt one of the strangest pieces of genre fiction to have recently floated to the cultural consciousness. Ms. Bishop has a poet's skill with words and a dreamer's talent for imagery, virtues which, together, invest her work here with a Gothic majesty. The setting is strongly reminiscent of the 19th century Wild West with Ashamoil taking up the mantle of the lively but amoral border town nestled on the edge of the untamed frontier. Pre-electric, knightly chivalry has nonetheless given way to the advent of guns which have turned every man, armed with a grudge and grandiose aspirations, into a deadly weapon capable of instantaneous and irreversible violence. In this, the world is similar in feel to Steampunk's Victorian revival.
What's striking about Ms. Bishop's work, however, is not the lengths to which it revels in the visually grotesque, the mystically bewildering, or even the understandably nihilistic. It is the grace with which the author interweaves discussions of morality, godliness and reality into what is otherwise episodic escapism. Though the work is difficult at times to swallow, and a challenge at other times to enjoy, it leaves no doubt that it was the product of a talented mind. It is as if Hemingway, or Joyce, or Dickens, or any of the greats had decided to descend from high art to put to paper the fancies of their powerful imaginations. And so even though it is occasionally repellent, The Etched City is, like the magnificent snakes with which it is so fond, always hypnotizing. I must seek out some of the author's short fiction to see if it too bears this compelling amalgam.
Mesmerizingly gruesome. (4/5 Stars)