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Tabula Rasa


by Christian Read, Gestalt Publishing, 2017

A review by Kyla Lee Ward

A copy of this book was received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Nil-Pray, "No Skin Land" (poor Aingelish translation).

The Great War began when an Archduke was assassinated by a minor death cultist. What gave the Aingelish the advantage that eventually saw them the victors was their embrace of Science--only the hopelessly parochial call it magic any more. But it is now 1925 and the consequences of creating werewolfen and binding asuras are starting to come home. Destruction on such an unprecedented scale has caught the attention of the Mortis Kings of Nil-Pray and for the first time, the ancient city of the Dead has accepted a Quick ambassador.

Richly inventive and wickedly cynical, this is a City narrative of sublime effect. As the young necromancer, Edmund Carver, and Shen, his suspiciously efficient batman, negotiate the Coriaceous Way through layer after layer of plots, assassins, bizarre rituals and downright disturbing architecture, they are forced to interrogate their own convictions, alongside the universals of power, difference and hatred.

"Nil Pray was a peculiar place to hate in. It was a refuge where the Dead found a queer felicity but, for all that, often kept habitudes from their Quick days. It was harder to hate for race when most skins had faded to leather brown or illness grey. Harder still when the skin had faded to muscle and bone. Often, gender was equally flimsy a foundation for bias, Breasts sagged to nothing. Penises rotted. Scrotums burst…. There was one simple divide immediate to all. The Carnal remained embodied and incarnate and the Spectral did not."

It is difficult for either kind to damage the other. But Lord Stricken of the Carnal and the Geistenrex of the Spectral have not only remembered war, they have discovered technology.

As the struggle unfolds, the Quick perspective is not unduly privileged. Vexacious Surreal, one of Stricken's exquisite yet highly dangerous enforcers, is the reader's window into the relict passions of the Dead. A hundred years dead, nearly twenty alive, the questions confronting her are not those of Shen and Carver, but they have the same roots. And then, there are all the other participants in this game: Ezeltrice, whose name has become a by-word for sadism amongst the Quick, Orieum the Facer, Mme. Alison Neville, representative of the ATO, and above all, the Gentleman, "…completely unfleshed, a walking skeleton, polished and waxed." Who affects a frock coat and stovepipe trousers, a gold and crimson patterned waistcoat and black cravat, with a ruby pin.

This is superb wordsmithing. The central action is contextualised with letters and a memoir composed well after the event, lending it depth but never weighting it. In other sections, omniscient narration expands the reader's perspective and these points should be carefully noted. The language is as lavish as it is appropriate to the decadent tone. But this book has pace and edges that cut, revelling in grotesque violence and passages of truly innovative cruelty. Whether the reader takes the Geistenrex at its word or suspects it of insanity, its ravings are brilliant grue. The steady escalation of threat, as Shen and Carver attempt to fathom a conspiracy that could threaten the entire world, culminates in a spectacular battle, that achieves a whole new level as the final pieces fall into place.

But, like Paradys, Ashamoil and similar urban fantasies, it is Nil-Pray itself that lingers in the reader's mind. It is the city that truly haunts.

"Mamoreal and magnificent, it broods in the depths of the rift valley and is ubiquitous. Unwalled, supreme in its confidence, the Thanatos Metropolis is white and pale and gallionic… Its silhouette, in relief against the black tors is surprisingly delicate. Buildings of bone and brick, steel and sinew that is sensible only to an aesthetic of those who have passed beyond dying. There is a frangible beauty here, minarets of rose-stone and beaux-arts apartments, classic and neo-classic manors and crook-backed shanties of alien function and design. The great road that leads into the city becomes a vein leading to the Town Hall ziggurat splitting occasionally to the east and west, and branching to create arrondissements and prefectures."

This is the Coriaceous Way. It is not for heroes.


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