Monday, July 30, 2018


Where the first book in B. Catling's Vorrh series, The Vorrh, was a scattershot of interesting ideas, weird characters and language games, its sequel, The Erstwhile, is a bit more conventionally readable, while losing none of the prior's strangeness. All in all its a much more enjoyable read, but I'd kind of expected that.

I only took up the first book after reading a few tantalizing reviews of the second, which focused on the title character class. The Erstwhile are basically remnant angels, those who had failed to defend the Tree of Knowledge from Adam (Eve is never mentioned in this derivation from the book of Genesis) and were cast aside and forgotten after that little mishap. In the thousands (millions? Catling takes no stance on how old the Earth might be) of years since then, these angels have gone to ground -- literally in some cases -- and devolved into weirdly malformed monster shapes with moss and plant life growing on various bits even before they became completely quiescent.

Or so it seems until some of them start interacting with humans again, usually when they are accidentally discovered in and around The Vorrh by European colonists looking for resources to exploit there. When a few of these beings are dug up and shipped back to Germany, they come under scrutiny and care and start to seem human-like. And when one emerges mysteriously from the mud on the banks of the Thames in the 18th century and becomes the freaky muse of one William Blake (yes that William Blake, whose image of Nebuchadnezzar graces the cover of this novel and in this story is understood actually to be a portrait from life of one of the Erstwhile), and then spends a century so drifting among human society in London, that one becomes so human that he takes on the name of Nicholas Parsons and becomes a sort of trustee at Bedlam.

Meanwhile back in the Vorrh and the colony city of Essenwald, all of the characters who survived the previous novel are trying to live out their lives after those weird events, with varying degrees of success. Ghertrude Tulp is mysteriously pregnant but not sure by whom -- Ishmael? Some random guy on the same carnival night that Ishmael slept with Cyrena Lohr and by so doing cured her blindness? Ishmael and Cyrena are living together in her sumptuous house and getting tired of having sex with each other. And the city is in steep economic and social decline since the Limboia, the "mindless" slave labor force that kept the timber industry going in the last novel, have up and disappeared. Others have tried to take up the work, but unlike the Limboia, they can't handle the weird powers the forest exerts on puny human minds -- namely all but erasing them.

Soon Ishmael, the only man anyone knows who has traveled through the Vorrh without losing his memories and mind, is drafted into leading an expedition to go find the Limboia and it's all a bit like Werner Herzog's Herz aus Glas.

Already you can see that this novel has a lot more of a conventional focus and structure to it. The expedition provides one of its main narrative threads, twined with another in which a new character, Dr. Hector Schumann, is called upon to take up the mysteries posed by the Erstwhile brought to Europe. A third story, of a lonely old woman who rescues a mysterious baby from the abandoned home of The Vorrh's white savior figure and his black shaman mistress/wife, is woven in less well for all that there are structural parallels between it and the Schumann story in their final thirds. And the fate of Ghertrude's baby is, I guess part of all of this, too, but not really?

For this book is a textbook case of Middle Chapter Trouble. For all that it's a much more enjoyable read than its predecessor, it's even more frustrating, in that exactly none of the questions or problems it or the prior book poses gets resolved at all, leaving a lot for the final book, The Cloven, which just came out, to answer. But, to be honest, I have zero hope that anything will actually get resolved, because Catling isn't here to try for narrative coherence. He's all about the language.

And some of this is downright beautiful:
The stillness of the water became a secondary feature to the movement of the snow. It fell straight down into its own reflection on the mirrored Thames, the depths of the reflection rising up to meet it. Each flake fell from a black sky and fluttered up from the river's black bed to meet its twin and become one before disappearing.
I mean, god damn!

A lot of the time, though, Catling threatens to become downright annoying, especially when he gets precious with malapropisms -- which I have to assume is what he's doing because otherwise 1) He's kind of a doofus and 2) The editorial staff at Random Penguin all need remedial courses. I'm assuming its deliberate because I'd rather that were true. But there sure is a lot of "finally crafted jewelry" and whatnot in here.

But so maybe it's just sunk cost fallacy working and maybe it's still just good enough to make me want more -- I really can't decide -- but I'm looking forward to The Cloven. But I've got a lot of library books to get through before I go looking for it, because right now I'm Vorrhed out.

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