Coral Waxwork Classic
By Rjurik Davidson
Much like the word “bastard,” snarled with tireless abandon by the Game of Thrones cast, the phrase “epic fantasy” has lost nearly all meaning. To be generous, we’ll agree that it currently refers to a series of paper bricks, offering diminishing returns as the author struggles to balance plot with mountains of physical detail and dialogue. Might this be a worthy struggle, describing characters’ many meals, outfits, and steps through treacherous terrain, if it achieves the mythic cadence of Lord of the Rings? Of course. Except that Tolkien’s masterpiece, still the jewel of epic fantasy, has a beginning, middle and end.
Author Robert Jordan, lest we forget, died before finishing the eleven novels in his Wheel of Time series (1990-2013); luckily, fellow fantasist Brandon Sanderson (The Stormlight Archive) rescued the rambling narrative for readers (and publisher Tor, when he broke the final manuscript into three books). Then there’s Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin—the genre’s current prince thanks to the visceral HBO adaptation of his series—who’s seen the years pile up exponentially between completed novels. Followers of the story in print and on T.V. fear that the show (now airing season four) will catch up with the five books and enter hiatus. It would also be great if Martin, aged sixty-five, lived to finish his own story.
But is “epic” still a desirable label? Perhaps we should start calling faltering series “too-epic,” implying that once we’ve invested emotionally and financially in certain fantasy worlds, our time is the author’s to waste. Up and coming lords of the landscape Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss (The Name of the Wind) should be concerned with this question. Rjurik Davidson, author of the bracing, 430-page Unwrapped Sky, needn’t be.
At least not yet. Set in Caeli-Amur, a city blending the white stonework of ancient Greece with the squalid hellishness of late 19th century industrial centers, Unwrapped Sky is restless with imaginative creatures and hopeful people. Davidson’s debut is also an elegant, creepy testament to just how short epic can be; there’s a story here he intends to tell—without dragging us through a swamp of who-is-eating-what for the sake of realism.
It begins with the week-long Festival of the Bull. About three hundred minotaur beast-men, like the one painted by Allen Williams on the cover, march into Caeli-Amur after a ten year absence. Hailing from the island of Aya, the minotaurs are respected by street urchins and factory workers alike, though some people choose to worship them. Harming one is considered a crime, but why would anyone try when the minotaurs just want to eat, drink, and joke about labyrinths? Enter Kata, the first of three principal characters; she’s a former urchin whom we meet in a tavern called The Ruins. There, she chats with a minotaur named Cyriacus, eventually sharing some Anlusian hot-wine. Davidson waltzes us into his realm with tantalizingly odd idea that the young woman and beast-man might sleep together. All the more shocking, then, when Kata murders Cyriacus in her apartment.
Caeli-Amur is a literary coral reef, densely alive with colorful surprises; it’s nevertheless run with bone-crushing efficiency by three Houses—Technis, Arbor, and Marin. They employ branches of magic called thaumaturgy, which combines the verbal chanting of equations with notations gestured into the air. Thaumaturgy has allowed Caeli-Amur to rise from the cinders of a more advanced civilization, populated by god-like beings, that destroyed itself. In action, the magic is astonishing to witness, but it comes with a price:
When the steam engine was almost complete, Mathias took it on himself to perform the binding charm so that the engine could withstand the intense pressures within. As others watched on, he spoke the formulae, drawing the ideograms in the air. The engine gleamed with a sickly green light that seemed to settle on the metal like a shroud and become absorbed. Mathias staggered and his legs gave way…he called out like a man suffering hallucinations.
What the tram worker sees, thanks to his thaumaturgical breaching of reality, are glimpses of the Other Side; there, death is the active state of being (and masters of this magic, over time, become knobby and bent like wax under a hot lamp). Kata has avoided the fate of those in the Factory Quarter by joining the philosopher-assassins, a class of ascetics living by their gifts for violence. She’s afflicted, however, by what we call epilepsy. The only medicine that helps her is concocted by House Technis; once she provides them with two dead minotaurs, she’ll get a new supply.
Davidson has the remarkable habit of serving up one indelible tableau after another. He’s clearly written a story that he’d love as a reader. His stylistic predecessors, like China Mieville (Perdido Street Station) and M. John Harrison (The Pastel City), do so as well. In a scene reminiscent of both, Davidson introduces the freshly oiled steam-punkery of House Technis; it feels like a condensed wonderland that could support its own novel:
Kata passed along the labyrinthine corridors that, having also been built at different times, were forced to accommodate themselves to the planless structure to which they had been added. Pneumatiques whizzed and whirred overhead on hundreds of tiny wires. Along the walls, pipes rattled and shuddered and heaved: some carrying small barrels filled with instructions, others of unknown purpose. In the background, the constant thump of steam engines could be heard, as the building shifted the rooms deep inside its mobile southeastern wing around each other, according to some preplanned sequence. She had never been inside that particular technological marvel, but had heard that it was easy to lose yourself as each room rose, fell, or spun before locking temporarily into its new location.
But Unwrapped Sky never atomizes its own cool ideas. Most of them retain a pea-soup mystery while in strict service to Davidson’s characters, whom he cares deeply about. The second of his principals is Subofficiate Boris Autec, an alcoholic widower from House Technis. Boris earnestly wants to improve relations between Technis and the Factory Quarter’s workforce, before strikes become widespread. Better relations will come from allowing the factory workers to know certain protective spells that counteract the evils of thaumaturgy. To this end, Boris visits the Elo-Talern, an awesomely hideous race of immortals who control the Houses from their rotting Undercity:
As [the Elo-Talern] walked, Boris heard a cracking and groaning, like a broken wooden machine. Unnerved, almost afraid to keep looking, he searched for the source of the sound, which seemed to be coming from her joints. Boris was horrified to see that they bent both ways, so that her knees doubled back after they straightened, just as her elbows swung in both directions. Her head turned imperiously on its long neck and stared at Boris.
Boris closed his eyes and felt the tension in his muscles. When he opened his eyes she had moved again. She collapsed her long body onto the throne, where she leaned in a languid pose, one spidery leg thrown out, the other with its foot to the floor. As she rested there, she flickered out of existence, replaced by a decaying creature—cadaverous cheekbones and blackened teeth —resembling her, yet not quite her. She flickered back into existence, and the smell of rotten leaves wafted past Boris to mingle with the dampness of the building.
Davidson pushes Boris on a lonely ride through the ranks of petty officialdom. Embellishing the bureaucratic nobody is the fact that he longs for someone untouchable—and this person, among the classical corals that so enrich Unwrapped Sky, must be a Siren. Boris first sees her up close at an opera performance when,
The Siren passed by them, her dress curling up over her shoulder and narrowing over her breasts as she walked. From nearby, her features seemed slightly changed. Where at a distance her immense eyes and lips had seemed strangely beautiful, now they were unnatural and alien: too large for a human, they evoked a sense of something deeply wrong. As if he had seen someone with a terminal illness, he felt fear and repulsion rise in him.
His damning critique of plastic surgery aside, Davidson uses the character named Paxaea to bring out the best and worst in Boris. When the Officiate above him suddenly dies, he scuttles into the void, hoping to become a desirable man of means that the Siren can’t resist. This sets up his collision with Kata, who’s ready for a new assignment after her ordeal with the minotaurs. Boris promises her a peaceful home in the country (like a Soviet dacha) if she can successfully infiltrate and bring down a group of seditionists hiding in Caeli-Amur.
Max, Davidson’s third main character, is one of these seditionists. He works closely with Kamron, the group’s aging visionary, in their Communal Cavern as they plan to take Caeli-Amur back from the Houses. Yet while Kamron is patient for change and content philosophizing, Max believes it’s time for action. He wants to foment a strike on the docks, where a race of fish-men called the Xsanthians are thaumaturgically enslaved by House Marin. When Max and the newly-recruited Kata hit the docks for surveillance, Davidson reveals this beautifully deranged specimen:
In a pool in the center of the hold thrashed a half-submerged creature. Its gray slippery body seemed circular, with many tentacles: some were thick and powerful and used for swimming; others were long and thin with stingers at their tips. Beneath the net that restrained it, a hundred and more disturbing plate-shaped eyes whirled and turned, each one independent, each one filled with a baleful intelligence. Max backed away a step and heard Kata beside him give out a little groan of horror…
The creature goes on to hypnotize Max into seeing his former lover, Nkando, a dark-skinned Numerian who had been a slave herself. He shakes the illusion just before cutting the creature from the net. But Max has more than just incredible willpower—he’s also got a natural gift for thaumaturgy. Researching the world as it was before dueling gods destroyed it, he learns that the magical branches used by the Houses were once a unified system in which a person could immerse himself, free from the penalties of the Other Side. The knowledge of the old world is said to rest in a Great Library, within Caeli-Amur’s drowned sister city, Caeli-Enas.
Once Davidson’s trio begin their converging arcs through his tempestuous firmament, Unwrapped Sky begins to further explore the dark forces shaping it. About halfway through the book we find what could be a decaying alien ship, a ghoulish deity’s storage facility, or both:
Maximilian looked into a hexagonal chamber, its sides about eight feet long. Inside lay a barely visible human form on a long table, shadows cast oddly over it. He leaned in with his lamp and the light struck the figure. It was the dried-husk of a cadaver, an elongated human, or human- like creature, its skin shrunken and brown around its bones. Into both of its arms, at the elbow joints, plunged a number of wires, each a different color, two of them translucent. Some form of tube ran from beneath the table, while another one descended into the thing’s mouth. The creature did not seem to have died in pain, for the cadaver was relaxed, and that very relaxation made the image all the more horrific: not the clean white bones of those long dead, nor the fresh calmness of the newly dead, but something in between.
Should we feel short-changed because there haven’t been six novels building toward the revelation that the Elo-Talern are vampires? Some readers might. Some crave the intimacy of knowing characters across thousands of pages, and the delayed gratification born of hyper-meticulous plotting. After all, as Steve Donoghue said of Sanderson’s latest, Words of Radiance, that “readers are in the sweaty, obsessive grip of a control freak with an apparently bottomless imagination.” A great place for fans to be, yes, but few writers have Sanderson’s gift for plot and pacing.
Unwrapped Sky is a rarer experience still. It’s a reef where genuinely tragic figures dart through dazzling grottoes—but not indefinitely. Not greedily. And yet, even if Davidson does write a sequel or three, and they stink, this volume will still be in the company of brilliant books like Hyperion, by Dan Simmons (which actually does have three mediocre sequels). But there are worse crimes against literature to consider—starting with the fact that millions of people read Martin’s series without knowing who Robert Silverberg, Gene Wolf, and Lord Dunsany are. The ocean that is epic fantasy goes less explored every year.
Justin Hickey is a freelance writer, and editor here at Open Letters Monthly.