Strange and Dark As It Is
The Stars Askew
By Rjurik Davidson
I was almost afraid to read this second volume in Rjurik Davidson’s Caeli-Amur series. The first, Unwrapped Sky, is a svelte little beast of a fantasy, powered by sharp characterization and divine weirdness. And when you find a novel so satisfying, it’s easy to approach the sequel with knives out, ready to diminish it for not being exactly like, or better, than its predecessor.
Two years ago, I reviewed Unwrapped Sky with this conundrum in mind. I hoped that if Davidson continued in Caeli-Amur, he wouldn’t bow to the publishing trend that bigger is better, and strand his characters Kata and Max in endless passages descriptive of food and travel that attempt to serve realism.
I needn’t have worried. Striding within The Stars Askew are minotaurs, cyclopses, and even the three-headed Cerberus. Grimmer beings of Davidson’s own concoction, the spidery Elo-Talern, return from the last novel but in lesser roles. He places these fantasy creatures in a world reeling with social and political upheaval, one whose patterns we’ll recognize from our own histories both large (Anne Applebaum’s Gulag) and small (Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Shah of Shahs). As Caeli-Amur’s Insurgents struggle against their own movement’s fascist elements to control the city, Davidson captures the emotional weight of history without caving to its enormity.
When The Stars Askew opens, philosopher-assassin Kata is a trusted messenger among the moderate leadership, including her friends Thom and Aceline. Post-revolution Caeli-Amur is a festive place, for the oppressive Houses (Arbor, Technis, and Marin) have fallen. Sex, liquor, and avant-garde street performances all flow freely. The remnants of the Houses, however, along with the nearby metropolis of Varenis, have withdrawn all support from Caeli-Amur; no goods come through the harbor, no crops arrive from the countryside, and no broken machinery is replaced. Just beneath the “carnivalesque atmosphere” boil the ingredients of further revolution.
The icy Ejan speaks for the vigilants, a group of Insurgents who refuse to compromise with anyone hoarding food or criticizing their violent tactics. When a mysterious assassin starts targeting moderate leaders, Ejan advocates keeping the killings secret to avoid riots. Later, the Insurgent Assembly’s use of a murderously efficient device called the Bolt reminds us of the French Revolution and its iconic guillotine. Max, one of Unwrapped Sky‘s instrumental seditionists, tells Ejan that, “Killing one’s opponent is a sign you’ve already lost the battle.” This echoes Kata’s earlier thoughts toward a vigilant named Rikard, with whom she investigates the murders. She understands that “the point of being a moderate” is to embrace the world’s complexity and to use “the input of others to see the world as it actually is.”
But what if you could actively create the world you desire? Some of Davidson’s characters use thaumaturgy, an ancient language of spoken words and gestures that can render one invisible, forge metals, or otherwise alter reality. Using the spells doesn’t come cheaply though, because thaumaturgists begin to slowly mutate as they see the Other Side, where death—and worse—dwells.
Unfortunately for Ejan, one of Caeli-Amur’s deadliest enemies is the former Technis footman, Armand Lecroisier. He used underground passages to escape the city as his House fell, and now he rides a horse toward the gaudy, bustling Varenis—where people wear dyed, asymmetrical haircuts! With him is the Prism of Alerion, which contains the soul of the brilliant, centuries dead thaumaturgist. Alerion, along with Aya and Iria, is considered a god by those currently alive, and his Prism is the only object that can stave off the effects of the Other Side. Armand has lofty hopes for what it can buy him among the power-hungry Varenis elite, and the vengeance it might reap against the Insurgents.
Perhaps my favorite part of The Stars Askew is Davidson’s willingness to leave Caeli-Amur, strange and dark as it is, for places stranger and darker. Many fans approach literary fantasy novels knowing that they’ll enter a mythically esoteric city that’s different with each visit, like M. John Harrison’s Viriconium. At play is a kind of urban romanticism, the belief that somewhere can be so charmingly odd that you’ll never fully know it, and the adventurer’s thirst—even if the adventure is merely rounding a forbidding corner at midnight—will always be slaked. Here, a neighborhood in Varenis called the Kinarian Pocket feels like a folkloric riff on Tokyo, with
a labyrinth of streets that climbed and descended up over archways and down into subterranean arcades. Tiny bars and rathskellers were scattered here and there. Some of the coffee shops were only holes in the wall, mantlepieces on which to place the coffee. Varenis was larger than Caeli-Amur—its buildings rose massively into the air, the crowds thicker and more impersonal—but this very fact seemed to lead to miniaturization: the exotic gardens, miniature bars, the rooms themselves seemed tiny and compressed.
Later, after Armand’s ambition crescendos in betrayal, Davidson sends him via overcrowded boxcar to Camp X, where the author is free to craft a Soviet fever dream (similar to Peter Higgins’ Wolfhound Century). Workers mine for the toxic bloodstone vital to thaumaturgical practices, and swallow heaping mounds of double-speak from Commander Raken, who tells them, “You will learn to embrace the freedom offered to you by work. All those fears and worries your old life brought will be eradicated.”
Following Max takes us into more grisly territory. With him we tour the ruins of Lixus, a once-prized city of the ancients. Before the revolution, representatives of House Arbor had been sent to colonize Lixus and learn its secrets. Instead, their leader Karol went mad, and he now holds court at the foot of the blood orchids, giant carnivorous plants possessing “whiplike petioles,” a limited ability to walk, and vampiric desires.
Yet nothing in The Stars Askew can out-weird the Elo-Talern. Davidson keeps them in the background, haunting his fast-churning narrative with the threat of prominence later. In one of their few scenes, he enlivens them with electric prose for a brief encounter with Max, whose
heart thumped rapidly at the sight of the strange creatures, long and thin like a fusion of spider and human. There seemed to be too many vertebrae in their wiry bodies, and their long horselike faces were composed of too many gaunt planes to be human. Some were robed, others half naked, their shriveled breasts and tiny genitals absurd and horrific to see. One group lay upon chaise longues, clasping tankards, their dead eyes staring at the roof. Over their robes and the floor, foodstuffs and liquid had spilled. Most had dried to dull yellows, reds, and oranges, but those that still retained a vestige of their former moisture were luminescent…
The Elo-Talern, whose scenes in Unwrapped Sky make for some grotesque, bizarre reading, are kept near death by a least-expected foe:
Across all surfaces grew lichens and molds in the most extraordinary colors: luminous greens, bright oranges, wild purples. In places, these had grown to monstrous proportions, towers and massive lakelike carpets. An entire corner of the hall was buried beneath a sea of crimson mold. Elsewhere, only the shadowy forms of groups of these spidery creatures could be seen beneath their horrid lime-green blankets.
Max is quite bizarre himself. He shares his mind with the ancient thaumaturgist Aya, and it testifies to Davidson’s adroitness with pacing and detail that he’s able to summarize the scene from Unwrapped Sky in which it happened so wonderfully:
Max could barely remember the sequence of events: dragging the air cart along the watery boulevards of Caeli-Enas, crabs scuttling along the cobblestones, fish darting around his feet, and the leviathan—the thought of it sent shudders into him—waiting there for him, spying him with its hundreds of roving eyes, ready to wrap him in its deadly tentacles. Then the conversation with the sentient Library beneath the oceans; the deal he made with Aya to escape the underwater world. From there the memories became even more fragmented: snatches in the ultramarine and emerald of the underwater world; bursting from the waters, gasping for air under the glittering lights of Caeli-Amur; staggering back to the seditionist base, this awful second personality in his head.
Kata is nevertheless the soul of this series. A killer even before the revolution, she’s desperate to atone. She’s befriended Dexion, the hammer-wielding minotaur with whom she shares Allen Williams’ cover painting. There’s also Henri, the orphaned child under her wing, and Rikard, the man she’s at odds with yet growing closer to—they become family while she maneuvers Caeli-Amur’s killer into the open. Yes, the city’s realpolitik has hardened her, as does the novel’s swiftly brutal finale, but amidst the worst of the horrors, she “could feel the hope inside her, a little spring emerging from the rocks of her heart, even though she knew it was misplaced.”
Such moments, and there’s a handful, are that much lovelier because Davidson has earned them. The inner lives of his characters sing out in every scene, and by the end, we’re terrified for the citizens of Caeli-Amur. The legions of Veranis are poised to obliterate the Insurgents, who have been tempered by magic, chaos, and heartbreak. They are the “little people of history,” Aya says. “They’re always the ones who are forgotten. Yet they’re the ones who make the difference.” They also fill out damn good fantasy novels.
Justin Hickey is a freelance writer, and editor here at Open Letters Monthly.