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The Etched City    by K. J. Bishop order for
Etched City
by K. J. Bishop
Order:  USA  Can
Spectra, 2004 (2003)
Paperback, e-Book
* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

This unusual literary fantasy begins like a surreal western as two jaded revolutionaries-turned-bandits flee from persistent pursuers in the Copper Country, and occasionally pause to ambush and slay said followers. After this patricularly gory introduction, the duo (gunslinger Gwynn and doctor Raule) cross the Salt Desert and take the train to the Teleute Shelf, moving on to the Dickensian city of Ashamoil, inhabited by both rich and desperately poor, and by warring gangs of low-lives.

In Ashamoil, the drug-addicted Gwynn and his friend Marriott are employed by a slaver/gangster named Elm, leader of the 'Horn Fan'. It's clear early on that Marriott is doomed, though the unfolding takes time. Gwynn is drawn towards a mysterious woman named Beth Constanzin, an artist who etched a 'crouching sphinx and scaly basilisk.' What is she really? The dissolute 'Rev' wants to save Gwynn, and himself in the process. They argue religion and philosophy. Though Raule disapproves of Gwynn's slaver affiliations, a remnant of loyalty still links them. She works as a doctor in the stews of the city, 'overpopulated labyrinths of misery and indignity'. In the slums of Limewood, Raule satisfies her 'phantom conscience' by playing the good physician, while she collects mutated stillborn fetuses from women who birth monsters, in jars as a hobby. One has 'the head of a human and the body of a crocodile'.

Eventually, the ubiquitous violence in Gwynn's life brings the two together again, and ends their city sojourn, in a most unusual manner. Though K. J. Bishop's use of language in The Etched City is very clever, I found that the story gets lost in the darkness of its surroundings, and in the symbolism. However, those who like their fantasy literary and on the noir side, will enjoy this novel much more than I did.

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