Friday, 4 February 2011

Book Review | Echo City by Tim Lebbon

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Surrounded by a vast, poisonous desert, Echo City is built upon the graveyard of its own past. Most inhabitants believe that their city and its subterranean Echoes are the whole of the world, but there are a few dissenters. Peer Nadawa is a political exile, forced to live with criminals in a ruinous slum. Gorham, once her lover, leads a ragtag band of rebels against the ruling theocracy. Nophel, a servant of that theocracy, dreams of revenge from his perch atop the city’s tallest spire. And beneath the city, a woman called Nadielle conducts macabre experiments in genetic manipulation using a science indistinguishable from sorcery. They believe there is something more beyond the endless desert... but what?

It is only when a stranger arrives from out of the wastes that things begin to change. Frail and amnesiac, he holds the key to a new beginning for Echo City — or perhaps to its end, for he is not the only new arrival. From the depths beneath Echo City, something ancient and deadly is rising. Now Peer, Gorham, Nophel, and Nadielle must test the limits of love and loyalty, courage and compassion, as they struggle to save a city collapsing under the weight of its own history.


This could be my least favourite China Mieville novel.

Talk about damning with faint praise... rather, I mean to praise with faint damning. From Bram Stoker and four-time British Fantasy Award-winner Tim Lebbon, your erstwhile go-to guy for Hellboy novelisationsEcho City is an accomplished fusion of fantasy fiction and the horror genre set in a city surrounded by poisonous desert fit to kill anyone who dares traverse it. The slowly roasting bones of all those who have tried little the barren sprawl, a dire warning to any fool enough to think themselves an exception: for centuries, no-one has left Echo City, and none have come.

Except this one guy.

Peer sees Rufus out in the wastes one day, a "shadow [shifting] far our in the desert - a slightly solid shape amid the unremitting downpour," (p.22) and with his shocking arrival, everything she has known begins to come undone. Of course, the city is all she's known; a Babylonian tower of epic proportions, scraping the skies, Echo City has been built - by necessity - upon itself, upon its own past. And "the past is a living place. The deeper you go, the further into history you travel. The city doesn't deal with history. It builds over its past, encloses it, shuts it off, and while tradition might persist, the real histories are soon forgotten. It's the present that matters to Echo City, while the past echoes below it, in some cases still alive." (p.212)

Rufus, however, despondent and conveniently amnesiac when we're first introduced, is emblematic not of the past, or even the present, but of a future in which Peer's dreams and nightmares are realised as one. For Peer is a Watcher: one of a clandestine cult of doomsayers who believe that the end is nigh-ish, and better to be prepared for it than not. Thinking themselves "the sensible minority in a city of unreason," (p.194) when Rufus falls into their collective lap they take his arrival as a sign that the end is even nigh-er than they'd thought.

Needless to say, Watchers are not the only fruit of the society sprung from this impossible, isolated wreck of a city. There are also the Garthans, a secretive race of proto-humans who dwell in the Echoes beneath to whom Rufus is a sort of albino Jesus, reborn that he might lead them into Honoured Darkness. And sure enough the Marcellans - the fundamentalist ruling class of Echo City - would love a slice of the pie. So begins a fraught race against time which takes Peer and Rufus deep into the crumbling foundations of the city, where the inevitable happens: together or otherwise, they must confront the past in order to have any hope of a future.

And I'm going on about China Mieville... why? Well, because of the chopped, for one thing: "three-legged whores... soldiers with blade limbs [and] builders with four arms" (p.296) or else out-and-out monstrosities made for murder from cultures in the artificial wombs of the Bakers, genetic wizards to whom Nadielle is the latest in a millennia-long lineage. And it is Nadielle, rather than Rufus, that Lebbon casts as the pivot around which this hellbound narrative turns. Her creatures roam the length and breadth of Echo City, stalking the streets and rises of every Canton; and before her, and her creatures, it was her "mother" - for Nadielle was herself unnaturally selected, the better to inherit her creator's secret science - and her mother's creatures. And so on, for "the Baker's line is long." (p.193) Longer, perhaps, than any other in the City's stifled history.

To his credit, Lebbon takes more of an interest in the creator of the chopped than the chopped themselves, while in the Bas-Lag books the Remade were the subject of Mieville's inspired speculations - the Remade, in favour of the Remaker. And never one to dwell on any one thing for any length of time, Mieville had no sooner conjured his iteration of the concept in question than done away with it, loping off toward pastures new. So there's certainly room for another take on... let's call it Man, Manipulated.

Lebbon is far from bereft of invention in that regard. Echo City boasts an assortment of truly inspired grotesques: most notably the Bellows, Giger-esque organs which pump Peer and her companions from Canton to Canton through the city's insides, and the Scopes, four twisted specimens - one of each of the compass' cardinal points - which answer the question What if binoculars were people too? leaving you wishing you hadn't asked after such lunacy in the first place.

Yet if you've read The Scar, or Iron Council, from the very outset of Echo City - a perversely visceral prologue wherein one horror births another, and within that other lies still another - there's something decidedly over-familiar about Lebbon's latest; about the chopped, something not a little been there, done that. Moreover, to have them play such a vital role in the narrative only foregrounds the problem, such as it is.

From there, other similarities between Echo City and the Bas-Lag books in particular - but also Kraken - extend outwards. The Cantons of Echo City are not dissimilar to the districts of New Crobuzon; so too has Mieville mined, multiple times, the revolutionary tension between bureaucracy and the misbegotten, which Lebbon frames as the Watchers versus the Marcellans - though there's not, in the end, a lot to these dissidents, besides which the Marcellans hardly seem a credible threat; we only meet the one, really, and even he's not who he seems. Then there's the stifling atmosphere, the weight of history and tradition, and the monsters. Did I mention the monsters already?

Echo City feels at times uncomfortably derivative - it would be a kindness to describe it as wearing its inspiration on its sleeve - but perhaps it is only in the comparison to such a master craftsman as the aforementioned award-devourer that Lebbon seems a second fiddle. And truth be told, the literature of the fantastic is so often content to play pointless jiggery-pokery with a few exhausted plot elements and call it a day that in some senses it's refreshing to see Lebbon at least has something worthwhile to say about such ho-hum tropes. He brings something new to the table, too: for the setting is itself a startling locale, and a good proportion of the story revolves around an ambitious, if occasionally belief-beggaring explication of Echo City and its long lost origins. It's no New Crubuzon, no... but then, nor was New Crubuzon after only a single volume.

It's hard to imagine Lebbon returning to Echo City, given the shattering events of the last act of his latest, but on the strength of its fascinating locale alone - and certainly Echo City has its other strengths: Lebbon's prose is a pleasure, and so too his seamless hybridisation of horror and dark fantasy - were there to be another novel set in the same world, I'd gladly go back for a second helping.

That is, so long as he swears not to mention the two-muffed woman (p.26) again. Talk about horror!


Echo City
by Tim Lebbon

UK Publication: July 2011, Orbit
US Publication: October 2010, Spectra

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  1. I read a Tim Lebbon book once - Berserk (2006). I didn't much like it and thought it was pretty poorly written. I cannot fathom a comparison b/w Mieville and Lebbon. Didn't really think I would read another book by him, but I am sort of morbidly curious about this one now.

  2. The first sentence (which I had to take a break after due to unavoidable and uncontrollable laughter) reminds me of some of the comments I've heard about Felix Gilman's Thunderer. I guess that since Mieville is so imaginative and distinct, and so loathe to tread the same ground again and again, it's natural that other writers would fill the gaps, so to speak. Not that there's anything wrong with that, providing that they've got their own ideas to add to the mix. In my opinion Gilman did; I can't say about Lebbon, not having read him yet, but I do know that having comparisons to Perdido or The Scar from the get go's got to be a damn hard thing to live up to.

  3. I have been trying to come up with a review for this since I finished it last week. I enjoyed the book, but my attempts at a review make it out to be somewhere between mediocre and bad.

    The Baker and the Echoes and the chopped are really the only things I can be overly positive about... even if I am constantly fighting my brain's need to figure out how the Echoes exist in a "preserved" state instead of having been buried to create a foundation for the newer bits of the city (do they build a roof over it? *perplexed*). The pacing as the book neared the end was well done, too, reminding me of Steven Erikson's end game convergences.

    The prose, the characterization, and the city proper (because it feels empty, with bits of colors painted onto a backdrop so whatever character walking about can point and say, "See, this place is gritty and grotesque and lively.") were only able to elicit a half-hearted shrug from me. The complaint about the city reminds me of a similar one I had with Daniel Abraham's A Shadow in Summer--in fact, the way this book was written (a pseudo-epic feel layered onto an urban setting that manages to escape the clutches of epic fantasy's medieval normalcy and eschews combat for drama) reminded me of that book quite a lot. No doubt I would have gotten the same impression you did, except I have only read Un Lun Dun by Mieville.

    My reaction to this book is much like my reaction to Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains: I finished the book and liked it well enough, but I have to admit that it is a middling novel that brings its own (mostly positive) elements to bear, but wallows in things we've seen before in better works.

    Like you, I would read a book that continues on after the end of this one (I am not so sure I would read a prequel though), but I would be bringing along the hope of some improvement with me.

  4. Charitie - "Morbidly curious" is pretty much exactly how I imagine myself feeling about reading another Tim Lebbon novel, when and if the opportunity arise. So you hit the nail on the head there.

    The Evil Hat - Fair play to him, I think Lebbon does have a few new ideas to speak of, but no, I don't feel like the comparison to China is going to do him any favours. Then again, if this Felix Gilman is anything like everyone's favourite award-devourer, I might just have to bump that copy of The Half-Made World up the TBR tower some... so perhaps the allusions have their value, after all.

    Oh, and for everyone with a notion, James has posted his review - his reviewish, I should say - of Echo City on over at Dazed Rambling:

  5. The Halfmade World was my favorite release of last year. Honestly, I think it's on The Scar's level, and The Scar was my favorite Mieville (though I am planning to reread Perdido soon, so that may change).

  6. You linked to my post? I wasn't aware you harbored the sadistic intention to harm your readership. :P

    I suppose Echo City benefits from my not having read any of Mieville's earlier books. As it was, by halfway through the novel, I started to think of it in terms of the works it reminded me of. (This is something I hate doing and strive to avoid.) To add more fuel to that fire in the form of a work that it more closely matches* may have proved a bit too much.

    *(And, let's face it, elements of Echo City are certainly cut from that "New Weird" cloth--only the cloth was found in a dusty old box at the back of an abandoned warehouse, several years after it was in style and relevant and the people who helped make it had moved on to other things.)

    On the other hand, I have a perverse desire to read The Scar and/or PSS and then go back and read Echo City.

  7. You linked to my post? I wasn't aware you harbored the sadistic intention to harm your readership. :P

    Truly, James, few things give me greater pleasure! :D

  8. And Hat: that's all the recommendation I could ever ask. The Scar is one of my favourite novels of all time, no question. If The Half-made World has anything on it, well fuck, I'm in!

  9. I was horribly disappointed with this book after being taken with its prologue (never having read ny "new weird" before), so I'm glad it's not just me that has a different view from the high-star reviews on Amazon.

    The chopped and the Echoes were initially interesting, but neither was developed past its introduction, probably because the author had no way of convincingly explaining either. I wasn't expecting a hard-SF level of rationale, but where did the city's inhabitants get the material to build the pillars and roofs to take the weight of the new levels, given that they were prevented from leaving their city? Quite apart from the engineering problems. As for the chopped, there was no hint of how they were made apart from vats and chemicals. It was laughable that most of the characters make the claim that the process is something other than magic, when clearly it cannot be anything else. The back-cover blurb speaks of "genetic experiments", which is laughable.

    And talking of laughable cover blurb, Steven Erikson apparently called this "exquisitely well written". I hope he was well paid.

    Well, that's off my chest. Cheers.

  10. This right here is why I'll never turn anonymous commenting off!

    You raise some interesting questions, Anonymous, particularly from the perspective of a newcomer to the New Weird... though of a more technical nature than the things I tend to worry about. They're equally valid questions, of course - and I do remember wondering how the city could continually build itself on top of itself without the damn whole house of cards coming down.

    That said, I don't look back on Echo City in anger. It was a decent enough book - I'd read a sequel, say - but hardly exquisite, no.