A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #38:-
THE ETCHED CITY: K. J. BISHOP
Tor pb, 332pp, £10.99
Gwynn and the healer Raule were once comrades in an army of freedom fighters, but now they are fugitives, constantly on the move to keep that vital one step ahead of their enemies. Thrown together by force of circumstance they flee the Copper Country for parts unknown, ending up in the city state of Ashamoil, where Raule finds work caring for the poor at a charity hospital, while Gwynn is employed by Elm, a crime lord whose main business is trafficking in human slaves. Gwynn buys an etching of a city scene, charmed by the fact that he himself appears in it, and sets out to learn the whereabouts of the mysterious artist. Her name is Beth and the two begin a passionate affair, but there is something strange and otherworldly about her, so that Gwynn never feels secure in their love and this feeling of dislocation casts a wider net. Ashamoil itself is subject to eerie visitations, with natural law perverted, signs and portents on every street corner, foretelling a crisis for the Elm’s organisation and personal tragedy which will plunge both Gwynn and Raule into deadly peril.
Reading this put me somewhat in mind of King’s Dark Tower milieu, through its use of gunslingers and a comparative level of technology, though Bishop is a superior prose stylist and her agenda (possibly) far more subtle. The plot hangs together perfectly, with every detail fitting into the whole and elements of the everyday and mystery intricately laced together, and there is a compelling subtext taking on the nature of art and faith, love and duty, sacrifice and redemption, seen most obviously in the conversations that take place between Gwynn and Rev, a priest who has taken on himself the task of saving the gunfighter’s soul. The characters are beautifully drawn, with Elm and his gang of miscreants brought to vibrant life on the page. They are undoubtedly criminals and people we would normally seek to avoid, but the author makes them seem strangely appealing, humane even by their own lights. In addition Bishop brings consummate skill to her depictions of places and events, making it all seem somehow wonderful, even the most ordinary happening, while she demonstrates an especial flair for writing set pieces packed with action, giving us such memorable scenes as the fight in the ruined city, the visit to an isolated ‘resort hotel’, and the full scale battle on a bridge between Elm’s gang and the forces of law and order. Her planning is meticulous and the attention to detail cannot be faulted. The end result of all this care and concern is a novel that, while obviously indebted to the whole body of generic fantasy, is a singular and remarkable work of imagination, dazzling with its insights and the sheer beauty of the prose in which they are framed, a small masterpiece by a writer of considerable talent who is destined to go on to bigger and better things if The Etched City is anything to judge by.