The Old Gods Return
By Cheryl Morgan
Jay Lake is a successful cannibal. All writers are, of course, cannibals in one way or another. They recycle their own work, and they draw inspiration from others. But some are good at it, and some less good. Lake, I think, has learned to do it rather well.
I first encountered Jason the Factor, Bijaz the Dwarf and other inhabitants of The City Imperishable in the story, "The Soul Bottles", from the Leviathan #4 anthology (now available online here). Lake has now produced a novel in the same setting, Trial of Flowers. Thus far he seems to have plenty of ideas and there’s no sign of things becoming stale. Another City Imperishable novel is apparently in production, so Lake clearly thinks he has more to say.
But writing a book of this sort is fraught with certain dangers. Night Shade, as is their job as publishers, have played up the "more like this" angle in the blurb, so readers will already be primed to compare Lake’s book with Perdido Street Station, City of Saints and Madmen, and The Etched City. There will, I am sure, be reviews written complaining that Lake is "ripping off" Miéville, VanderMeer and Bishop. Lake, on the other hand, is well aware of the debts he owes. And he has done a good job of making his own creation unique. The City Imperishable is perhaps notable for its population of made dwarfs.
To be a dwarf was to spend the years of youth boxed in agony, while the full-men walked laughing and free in the sunlight. To be a dwarf was to have your head stuffed with numbers and letters and facts until wax ran from your ears and your eyes bled, while the full-men drank and gambled and whored in the taverns and gaming parlors of the City Imperishable. To be a dwarf was to be sworn to service and a life of staring at cobblestones and twice-counted coins, while the full-men knelt for honors before the high folk of the city and rode fine horses through the bright streets.
Nor is this just a shock tactic. The idea of dwarfs, and their relationship to the City, is central to the entire plot of Trial of Flowers. At the same time Lake introduces affectionate nods to works that have inspired him. There is a character called Tomb, who of course this time is notable for not being a dwarf. And of course there are our tentacled friends.
"I seen strange things down these tunnels over the years, your worship. What’s a god or two to me atop of the freshwater squid infestations…"
A little background would probably be helpful. The City Imperishable is the last remnant of a once-proud empire. In theory, the Burgesses govern only until such time as the Emperor should return. In practice the City is ruled by an oligarchy of businessmen and bureaucrats and is corrupt in precisely the ways you would expect from such a set-up. But things are not going well. The City’s fortunes, it appears, are crumbling. Worse, there are rumors that foreign armies are marching on the City planning to conquer it. The City has no army, and the walls are a joke. Their one competent administrator, Jason’s master Ignatius of Redtower, has gone missing, and someone, it seems, is summoning Things. Naturally everyone blames the dwarfs. Lake understands scapegoat politics very well.
"We shall both need to rally around the Lord Mayor when he appears, or we are dead dwarfs who have simply neglected to stop breathing yet. There will be no mercy from the Burgesses. Not after last night’s riot."
"How many of our dwarven folk stormed the Coastard Gate last night, do you suppose?" Bijaz asked with a smile that crooked his face.
"It will be said that all of us did, should the Burgesses wish that to be so."
What is this Lord Mayor business, you might ask? Well, Jason and Bijaz have decided to support the efforts of Imago of Lockwood to have himself declared Mayor. Imago has discovered an ancient provision that allows a Mayor to be elected by acclamation should he survive something called the Trial of Flowers. This would get around the refusal of the Burgesses to hold elections. The plotters hope that this will provide the City with some desperately needed decisive leadership, rather than the grasping fools who see in the crisis only a further opportunity to enrich themselves at the expense of others.
This brings up a very interesting aspect of the book. Lake is a very long way from using traditional fantasy characters. Jason is a merchant, Bijaz a political leader of the dwarfs, and Imago a lawyer. They are very much City folk, not in the least bit like heroes. Of course they need to hire mercenaries, but Enero, the captain of the Winter Boys, turns out to be a hard-headed military commander who has no time for fantastical nonsense.
"The Alate was to be coming to me, to be speaking of your danger."
"Alate?" Jason didn’t know the term.
"Wingèd man. A race of the uttermost east, some are to be saying, from high in the Shattercliff Mountains. I am being told they are noumenal, but I am knowing these fliers to be the Alate. A creature which eats and shits and bleeds and is crying pain." Enero flexed his fists and smiled. "I am to have killed them before. They are dying simple as pigeons, but with having more of the fuss about them."
The net result of all this is a fascinating book that has sufficient magical weirdness to satisfy fantasy fans, but at the same time demonstrates an awareness of political theories from sources as diverse as the American Revolution and Frazer’s Golden Bough. There is a certain amount of stomach-churning material in the book. It doesn’t get an enthusiastic blurb from Richard Calder by accident. But I can see why Lake has done it, and it is clearly a means to an end rather than an end in itself. I think I would describe the book as admirably intelligent rather than spectacularly literary, but not everyone can be Hal Duncan and Lake does what he does very well. Recommended.