KJ Bishop‘s The Etched City is a delirious fever-dream of a novel. I suppose it can be classified as “dark fantasy,” as it is set in an imaginary world and involves certain supernatural occurrences (though for the most part its technology is Victorian); but such a label doesn’t really get us very far. The book is more a hypercharged, yet heavily mannered, poetic meditation; it evokes, and is deeply influenced by, late-19th-century decadent literature.
In other words, The Etched City is not a “world-building” fantasy (a category that comprehends texts as different from one another as the novels of Tolkien and Mieville); Bishop is much more concerned with effects than with consistency. The novel begins as a Sergio Leone-esque Western, with the monotony of a hostile desert landscape punctuated by brief and violent gunfights, as a pair of political outlaws, with uncertain agendas, battle for survival. But it quickly moves to the tropical city of Ashamoil, a vast metropolis oozing with moist heat and corruption, with obscenely fecund life and myriad stalking forms of death.
The people in this book are “beyond good and evil.” The main character, Gwynn, a gunfighter, a dandy, and a former revolutionary, finds work as a thug and enforcer for a powerful slave trader, while pursuing a love affair with a woman he does not understand, an artist who seems to have powers of alchemical transformation. There’s also a doctor who becomes obsessed with the deformed and stillborn fetuses that she collects in sample jars, and who devotes herself to helping the poor almost out of perversity, in order to confirm for herself her absolute lack of conscience, compassion, or empathy.
Odd portents abound in Ashamoil. A child born with a human head, but the body of a crocodile; a man with a flower growing out of his navel; corpses of people hacked to death by a gigantic axe, who have green leaves sprouting out of their mortal wounds. The rich entertain themselves with parties and duels, while the poor live in the absolute squalor of cramped and broken-down dwellings, suffused with fetid odors and carrying the constant danger of plague. All this is presented with a cold, amoral detachment (which is not a criticism, but a description: the realization of this coldness, at the very heart of feverish intensity and violent obsession, is precisely the brilliant achievement of the novel).
Indeed, everything in the novel is eroticized and aestheticized by Bishop’s wonderfully dank, languorous, and overwrought prose. Her descriptions of violence, in particular (ritualized knife fights, stabbings and poisonings, sadistic mutilations and murders, chaotic battles and skirmishes) are charged with great detail and a hyperreal, hallucinatory clarity. To the contrary, when Gwynn actually takes psychedelic drugs (as he does a number of times in the course of the novel) his visions are oddly detached and allegorical. In between, there are erotic tableaus that are all the more suggestive in that they are not entirely explicit. The novel is also punctuated by the characters’ long (and sometimes drunken) discussions of theology and aesthetics, which never come to any conclusions, but circle restlessly around themes of transcendence and transmutation.
It would do the novel an injustice to reduce its impressions and effects to some discussion of what it all means. I’ll just say that I find its gorgeous and carefully crafted extremity quite haunting. This is not a book that sweeps you away on wings of fantasy, but one that makes you hyper-aware of its own programmed machinations, which become even more disturbing than the explicit horrors depicted thereby. The Etched City is as beautiful as it is opaque, as difficult to forget as it is to grasp, as impassioned as it is chilling. Bishop at once immerses us into a world of roiling passions, and observes those passions with the cool detachment of an anthropologist from another planet.