Monday, August 06, 2007

The Etched City (KJ Bishop)

When I was in fifth or sixth grade, I wanted my own Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper. They were bright pink and pretty and nearly every girl had them, but they were really too expensive for my humble allowance. But because I still wished to be part of the herd, I meh-ed until my parents gave in--only to realize that no amount of trapping or keeping was going to save my school stuff from my supreme disorganization. And that I hated bright pink. I suppose that should have made me learn my lesson that not everything I wanted was actually right for me. Sadly, I'm slow on the uptake.

When I put down my copy of The Etched City, all I could think about was that Trapper Keeper. You see, for years now, I thought I wanted to go to Ashamoil and I ended up wishing I had taken the wrong train.

KJ Bishop's The Etched City chronicles the lives of two ex-revolutionaries looking for a second chance: Gwynn the merciless, and Raule, the doctor who rues the conscience she has lost long ago. After a brief and tenuous alliance as they journey through the Copper County, they reach Ashamoil and part ways.

Let's get one thing clear before I proceed. I admire Ms. Bishop's ability to create the grandiose yet crumbling city of Ashamoil, where the decadent and the grotesque carve out their lives. But the metaphysical talk was sorely lost on me. See, I want to be fair to Ms. Bishop by reminding you that I am likely not her audience, so anything you read here should not be taken as gospel truth. But I also want to be fair to readers who might want more fantasy than philosophy by warning you about this bit beforehand.

Proceeding. When the characters find themselves in Ashamoil, it doesn't take me long to fall out of like with the book. (I must be crazy. The book's well-received. It was nominated for the 2004 World Fantasy Awards.) Still, I found Gwynn one-dimensional and sadly, Raule doesn't get half the attention that Gwynn does. Gwynn is enamored by the engraver, Beth Constanzin, who inducts him into the surreal within Ashamoil. Beth may be wise and temptingly enigmatic, but I'm still not hooked by the story. It is Beth, though, who utters one of my favorite lines from the book: 'With inspiration and passion, and perhaps a little tragedy. Or perhaps cynically, in back rooms, behind closed doors (p. 157),' she says when asked of her art. I suppose I can never really dislike artists.

Set-up, set-up, set-up, and nearly twenty chapters later, rising action. I meandered along with the languid narration only to reach a climax and resolution that I thought was too deus ex machina. I got off the train. While I rejoice that writers such as Ms. Bishop give us more than the Tolkien fare, it saddens me that we automatically assume that fantasy novels that still have their share of knights and wizards are bad. At the end of the day, all I really want from a fantasy novel--or anything, for that matter, even Trapper Keepers--is one that will leave me with the magic of satisfaction.

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