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Book Review: The Vorrh

By (May 14, 2015) One Comment

The Vorrhthe vorrh us cover

by Brian Catling

Vintage, 2015

The Vintage Original paperback edition of B. Catling’s novel The Vorrh is a curious thing, especially when compared with the book’s earlier 2012 UK printing. That edition featured not only pretty cover art but also a Foreward by comics legend Alan Moore extravagantly praising the novel as, among other things, the first truly great fantasy novel of the 21st century. This new US paperback printing appears without the Moore Preface (given the givens, he probably fell out with the author and now hates him, or else he’s asking several million dollars for the reprint rights, or some such thing) and with a cover design that’s, shall we say, something less than evocative (is it a rotary phone dial? A toasted bagel with pastrami slices on top? Does it even remotely signify anything at all?). This Vintage paperback is, against all odds in today’s front-of-store market, drab.

Fortunately for readers, Moore’s original judgement was right: The Vorrh is a masterpiece.

It’s a fiercely complicated book, at times rather pointedly overwritten. The first line of the prologue has no fewer than twenty adjectives and adverbs: “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.” The profusion here mirrors the book’s central, overriding reality: the Vorrh, a jungle in an alternate-reality version of colonial Africa, but also much more than a jungle, “the mother of forests, ancient beyond language, older than every known species, and, some said, propagator of them all, locked in its own system of evolution and time.” The Vorrh sprawls just beyond the gates of the city of Essenwald, “a European city, imported piece by piece to the Dark Continent and reassembled in a vast clearing made in the perimeter of the forest,” but the Vorrh is much stranger even than normal old-growth forest. Like the endlessness of Merwyn Peake’s Gormenghast or the jungle in “The All-Consuming” by Lucius Shepard and Robert Frazier, this is also a wilderness of reality itself:

So vast was its acreage, it also made its demands of time, splitting the toiling sun into zones outside of normal calibration; a theoretical traveller, passing through its entire breadth on foot, would have to stop at its centre and wait at least a week for his soul to catch up. So dense was its breathing, it dented the surrounding climate. Swirling clouds interacted with its shadow. Its massive transpiration sucked at the nearby city that fed from it, sipping from the lungs of its inhabitants and filling the skies with oxygen. It brought in storms and unparalleled shifts in weather. Sometimes it mimicked Europe, smuggling a fake winter for a week or two, dropping temperatures and make the city look and feel like its progenitor. Then it spun winds and heat to make the masonry crack after the tightness of the impossible frost.

the vorrh ukcoverInto this acreage travel two men, an Englishman nicknamed “the Bowman” who’s intent on being the first person to traverse the Vorrh, and a native revolutionary named Tsungali, who’s been conscripted to hunt down the Bowman. But Catling’s narrative extends far beyond this tense antagonism – indeed, far beyond the Vorrh itself, to the city of Essenwald and also to the Europe of the early 20th century, where we encounter such historical figures as Doctor William Gull (once Queen Victoria’s personal physician) and Edward Muybridge, pioneering photographer and former drinking buddy of “Doc” Holliday, among others. The cast of characters also includes a naive and charming cyclops named Ishmael, who’s raised in near-complete isolation by caregiving robots. And there’s also a mysterious race of beings called the Erstwhile:

Their lightweight skeletons of spun coral and honey had absorbed the densities of water and time; now, heavier than bone, they filled their sluggish bodies with despair. Where feather and light might once have been, there now grew vines and rough, scarred bark.Some ha assumed coverings of fur or scales to keep their endless life forces protected.

Catling moves these and other characters and plot-lines around and through each other with almost surreal confidence and expressive skill, constantly challenging easy assumptions, constantly pushing the boundaries of taste and comfort (both in its slanted resurrection of stereotypical British imperialist lingo and in its surprisingly frank sexual encounters). The book is rumored to be the first installment in a trilogy, but on its own it stands as a weird and profoundly moving work of original fantasy.