The Etched City is a novel you need to read if you enjoyed China Miéville's Bas-Lag novels or M. John Harrison's Viriconium stories.
The first section of K. J. Bishop's The Etched City is set in Copper Canyon, a fantasy wild west region currently enduring the aftermath of a revolution. The novel's protagonists, the gunslinger Gwynne and the doctor Raule, were on the wrong side of the revolution; currently on the run, they flee the continent and make their way to Ashamoil, an uncanny version of the nineteenth-century colonial metropolis.
Once in Ashamoil, the tone and atmosphere shifts perceptibly; the wild west conventions give way to the languid decadence of an imaginary, slumbering city awash in equal parts mysticism and casual violence. In Ashamoil, the duo part ways only to find their paths occasionally and momentously crossing. Gwynne leverages his violent propensities as a lieutenant to a crime boss, and becomes entangled in a romance with a strange, metamorphing artist; Raule tries to find redemption for her violent past by ministering to the residents of one of Ashamoil's impoverished boroughs, and begins to study a rash of pre-birth deformities afflicting the populace.
The world-building is exquisite, and the characters are compelling. And yet, this isn't really a typical fantasy novel in that it isn't driven by plot. Instead, The Etched City shows us a fantasy world in which art is a more potent force for change than the sword, the quest, or valor. As Wilde noted in The Decay of Lying, "Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life." This is a fantasy novel for dreaming aesthetes.
The only thing I don't like about this novel is that the cover of my copy looks like the image below and not the image above:
And now, some quotes to entice you:
"the drug in his system made it easy for a particular type of pleasure to come to him: that nocturnal enchantment or glamour in which the heart, seeking mystery, and the eye, loving obscurity, collude against the survival instinct’s desire to see everything clearly."
"You know, the wisdom that is now conventional claims that light creates shadows. But the facts are otherwise. Darkness came first and is infinitely older and more enduring than light. Light borrows a little space; then it dies or it moves on, and the dark exists again as if it had never been disturbed."
"But when all was said and done, blades were utilitarian. Even the finest sword was a kissing cousin to a butcher’s knife."
"in nearly all else with which today’s poor humans are filling the world, I see a quelling of the numinous, an ashening of the fire of life."
"At last, standing exposed to the dark and the wind, she abruptly and deeply regretted joining the revolution and supporting the violence that mocked her true aspirations. She felt more than defeated; she felt extinguished, and it was a relief."
"In particular, she labored long hours to meet a steadily growing demand for her erotic portraits. In these, her new lover’s influence showed. She told Gwynn that he was linear and monochromatic, he was ideally suited to the engraver’s medium. Faces and figures in her work became sparer, their beauty more martial; they acquired something of their prototype’s tranquil mein, and also something of the current of malice that could be observed in his habitual gestures and expressions."