Wednesday, 13 May 2015

The Vorrh by Brian Catling

Prepare to lose yourself in the heady, mythical expanse of the Vorrh.

In B. Catling's twisting, poetic narrative, Bakelite robots lie broken - their hard shells cracked by human desire - and an inquisitive Cyclops waits for his keeper and guardian, growing in all directions. Beyond the colonial city of Essenwald lies the Vorrh, the forest which sucks souls and wipes minds. There, a writer heads out on a giddy mission to experience otherness, fallen angels observe humanity from afar, and two hunters - one carrying a bow carved from his lover, the other a charmed Lee-Enfield rifle - fight to the end.

Thousands of miles away, famed photographer Eadweard Muybridge attempts to capture the ultimate truth, as rifle heiress Sarah Winchester erects a house to protect her from the spirits of her gun's victims.

In the tradition of China Mieville, Michael Moorcock and Alasdair Gray, B. Catling's The Vorrh is literary dark fantasy which wilfully ignores boundaries, crossing over into surrealism, magic-realism, horror and steampunk.

Goodreads description

Okay, let's get one rather important thing out of the way first. This novel may be many things - steampunk, surrealism, horror, mythic fantasy, historical fantasy - but one thing it is not is magic realism. Magic realism is defined by its realistic context. Hence you can have any one of a number of realist genres, e.g. mystery, women's fiction, or historical fiction, and add an element of magic realism to it, but you can't add magic realism to fantasy. Yes, there are real historical characters, but that is not enough. 

Despite this and the fact that this blog is dedicated to magic realism I wanted to review the book anyway. This is partly because the claim to magic realism is made by the publishers in the product description and so some of you might pick it up under the impression that you are buying a magic realist book and partly because it is an ambitious and interesting book and one that might appeal to many who follow this blog.

If we are going to play the genre game, I suppose I would put this book on the mythic fiction shelf. To quote the Wikipedia entry on that genre: Mythic fiction is literature that is rooted in, inspired by, or that in some way draws from the themes, symbolism, myth, legend, folklore, fairy tales... Mythic fiction overlaps with urban fantasy and the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but mythic fiction also includes contemporary works in non-urban settings. Mythic fiction refers to works of contemporary literature that often cross the divide between literary fiction and fantasy. 

As I read this large book (over 500 pages) I found myself reminded of two trilogies - The Gormenghast books by Mervyn Peake and His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. Peake's works because of the strangeness of the characters and the evocation of place and Pullman's because of the way the mythic forest at the heart of the book is depicted as the Garden of Eden. No doubt were I more widely read in fantasy fiction other books and authors would have come to mind. It should perhaps be said that I had problems with both of these much-lauded works and so it should not be a surprise that I also had problems with The Vorrh

My responses were so mixed. I loved parts of it. The opening of Part One with the death of bowman's lover and the start of his journey was spectacular, moving and vivid. I enjoyed the book's mythic and archetypal nature. I admired its ambition. But the book was constantly switching from the story of one character and that of another, in a way that could be confusing and was frustrating. I kept thinking that the stories would all come together somehow and yet it didn't happen in some cases and I was left wondering why the author devoted so much time to characters that were not integral to the plot. The Vorrh is, I understand, the first book in a series, so maybe that is something that will be resolved over the course of the trilogy.

The author's writing style is as lush as the fabled forest. Sometimes it worked brilliantly and sometimes it had me shouting "What!" at the page. For example a doctor sits behind a Jurassic desk - what the hell is a Jurassic desk? And the author clearly does not believe in the principle of using adverbs and adjectives sparingly. Take this from the book's opening: The hotel was ponderous, grand, and encrusted with gloom. Its tall baroque rooms were grudgingly fortified by vicious light that desperately tried to penetrate the heavy curtains and starched formalities. After a while I stopped being distracted by the overblown style, but instead allowed myself to become absorbed in the story.

So, as you can see, I found this to be a curate's egg of a novel. Maybe the problem lies in me. Maybe the fact that I like realism with my magic made me less tolerant of this book. I don't know. I am glad I read it.

I received this novel free from the publisher via Edelweiss in return for a fair review.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you Zoe for what definitely appears to be a fair review. So very glad you called out the Goodreads review for the magic realism inclusion, and opened out the explanation. This is one of my annoyances with publishers, reviewers etc who don't know what the mode is and call everything they can't define as MR. I recently had to refuse to do a book endorsement because the writer insisted the obviously fantasy (invented world, things that happened for no reason etc) was MR and wanted me to say so.
Keep on defining!
Glenda Guest