It is very difficult to write a review a book which has so many layers. You have story within story and character within character. The style is literary, and you have a lot of debates about characters, psychology, philosophy, theology, and art! All of these makes the book an extremely rich book. I doubt I can digest it in one reading; in one sitting is just impossible. I definitely will reread the book after sometime, to get a fresh outlook and a new insight.
The first part (out of three) of the book is the introduction of the main characters, which is easy to read because it is a single layer. The main characters are Rauel, a talented street-surgeon, and Gwynn, an ex-revolutionary-turned-hired-gunslinger. Both of them are remnants of a fail revolutionary attempt. Together, they plan to have a new life, while surviving from the past that is always catching up on them.
The second and third part is the main story, telling about their lives in the city of Ashamoil, a refuge after running away. I like the description of the city. It is a blend between a wild west world and an Arabian setting. The description of the city is just beautiful (mind you, it is the description that is beautiful, not the city!)
I admit it that it is not an easy read. Some readers point out the lack of plot, which is true. But it is not the plot that you should look for in this novel. The plot is just a device for the characters. The plot is just events to mold the character, a tool by the author to show the “transmutation” of the character. You do not read this novel to find the conclusion of the story, to find the good guy defeating the bad guy. You are not going to find it out here. But you are invited to witness the Great Alchemy, quoted here:
“Could your god and this infernal be called enemies, then?””It is more complicated than that. God knew what was going to happen, of course. The divine has a plan for the infernal. Because all is of God and nothing of God can truly be destroyed, the infernal must instead be transmuted. It must realise its error, comprehend the illogicality of its existence, and choose to become part of the divine. When all is converted, the erroneous potential will no longer exist. Perfection will be achieved. We are all subjects, substances, in this greatest alchemy, the Great Work of God.”
You are going to see a heated theological debate, between an atheist, impersonated by Gwynn, and the believer, impersonated by the Reverend. However, unlike what we do in theological debate in the real world, they remain civil and friendly to each other, which is a good think. I can quote one line in here:
“Think of a potter taking a misshapen bowl from his wheel and pounding it back into the tub of clay. A soul suffers while it is being pounded in this way, and suffers until it ceases to be. You are pounded down, and that which was you gets into something else. God tries again, and tries until the Work is complete. Meanwhile you, my son, are long gone.”
The most difficult part of this novel is the relationship between Gwynn and the artist, Bethine Constanzin. The world created by their relation is surreal, depicted by the engraving of the artist. She is his lover, but also, I think, her temptress. Gwynn see herself also like a catalyst, the one who ignite the transmutation in his character, even though she denied it.
While the character of Gwynn is troublesome for the readers, Raule is the setting of a moral standard. It is a character that you can rely on, even though she is helpless of the situation that she cannot change.
Another thing that I like about the novel is the low level of magic involved. Nowadays, too many fantasy authors use magic as the ultimate weapon to solve the plot. The magic in this book is kept at the minimum, just to serve some characters. Another thing that is interesting also, is the lack of romance interest between the main characters! It is refreshing because almost all fantasy (especially the YA) includes romance as the main ingredient. There are already too many romance that it is inflated.
I spend about a month to finish reading it. I stop here and there, just to meditate about it, and it is worthwhile. And the amazing thing is that this novel is the FIRST novel by K.J. Bishop! It is just mind blowing that she can write this good. She is definitely in my watch-list. Mam, consider me your new fan.
And this quote is my own personal favorite:
“Tobacco Will Slowly and Surely Kill You.” And so will time, Gwynn thought. But if you want the job done quickly, professionals recommend bullet.
(I am not a smoker, and I hate smokers. But still, the quote is stunning.)
So, as my last words, just to paraphrase the question ask by Beth to Gwynn:
“So, what are you, death or devil?”
A 4.5 star! After rereading I might give it a 5 star in the future.