K. J. Bishop, The Etched City (Spectra, 2003)

A young woman rides into a dying near-ghost town on the frontier of Copper Country, tethers her mount and walks into the only open establishment, a bar. A card game is in progress. She recognizes one of the players but doesn't let on. The bartender is dead behind the bar, so she grabs a drink and goes out the back door, finds a tree and rests. Shortly, a gunfight erupts inside the bar, and her acquaintance emerges the sole survivor, shotgun and handgun smoking. He strips the bodies of valuables, takes their mounts and leaves. The young woman, Raule, decides to tag along for a while.

Sounds like the opening scene from a spaghetti western, except that their mounts are camels, and the two are refugees from a guerilla war that their side lost, and their world is . . . well, in many ways it's like our world, and in many ways it's not.

Thus begins the intriguing debut novel by K. J. Bishop, The Etched City. It's part Western-style adventure, part swords-and-sorcery fantasy, part Philip K. Dick alternative universe fiction.

Raule is a doctor of sorts, trained on the battlefield of the aforementioned guerilla war. Her acquaintance, Gwynn, is a Clint Eastwood-type antihero with a twist. Lots of twists, actually; you might even say kinks. He dresses in black, he's handy with a sword whose tongue-twisting name translates as "not my funeral." He plays piano like a maestro. He's completely amoral and apparently conscienceless, until he falls in love with . . . but that's getting ahead of the story.

It turns out that the little affair in Copper Country is but prelude. The two make it by the skin of their teeth into another land, the teeming, steaming city of Ashamoil on the Teleute Shelf, a land of forests, crocodile-infested rivers, monsoon-like storms and a thriving slave trade. Here, somewhat surprisingly, the tale becomes mostly Gwynn's, as Raule fades into the background, working in a church-run hospital for the poor and collecting the grisly remains of an ever-increasing number of freakish stillborn babies.

Yes, something is happening in Ashamoil, something sinister, and the two characters adapt to it in their very different ways. Gwynn rises to the top of the mercenery corps of bodyguards of one of the city's top crooks, a slaver named Elm. He has weekly sessions where he drinks and argues against theism with a twisted old cleric known simply as The Rev. But his fall begins when he encounters the work of an artist who seems to be in touch with something . . . supernatural perhaps.

In the way of the best fantasy fiction, Bishop creates a complex world that seems much like ours, but has just enough differences to allow the reader to suspend disbelief. Is this some distant past? Probably not, because there are firearms and trains. Some post-apocalyptic future? Perhaps, but how to account for things like babies born with the body of a crocodile and the head of a human infant? Perhaps the best explanation comes from the artist, Beth Constanzin, who makes a statement that amounts to the manifesto of an artist — all artists in all worlds, perhaps:

I have come to believe that we steer our individual spheres of being through the spectra of possible worlds via the choices we make, the acts we perform. Most people stick to known routes, and therefore cannot travel far. They live too modestly, and perhaps too privately. Only by being strange can we move, for strange acts cause us to be rejected by whatever normality we have offended, and to be propelled towards a normality that can better accommodate us.

Gwynn, though he finally realizes that he is searching for something, may have come to it too late:

For a long time, I have believed that it is human nature to invent the strangest explanations for the things that mystify us, and to believe in something beyond all we yet know of, because we cannot abide limits and endings; we are insatiable, and we desire the impossible. I prided myself on having no illusions — but like any man, I must have desired them.

With its balance of gritty realism, sly humor, gruesomely violent action, and philosophical inquiry into the soul of humankind, The Etched City lands itself solidly in the realm of top speculative fiction. To call it a promising debut would be an understatement.

[Gary Whitehouse]