Unwrapped Sky (2014) and The Stars Askew (2016) by Rjurik Davidson: An inexpert review, exploring the Pleasures of the Text

October 15, 2016

Written by Jennifer Mitchell


Click here to listen to Jennifer’s interview with Rjurik, touching on destabilising genre in the publishing industry, writing across the borders of literature and fantasy, and how reading about fantasy worlds can lead us back into our own world with new and important questions.


 

Science-fiction fantasy (SFF) isn’t a genre I am really familiar with – if I was this would be a very different review. For it to have legitimacy among experienced readers of new-weird fiction I would really need to be well-versed in the field, intimate with the seminal works and the weighty lexicons and tropes of its mistresses and masters. But I am not, alas. So this is a mainstream review of another kind, inspired by and grounded in reading and being sensually immersed in the pleasures of the text.

And what dark addictive pleasures there are in both these novels for those who like their reading to be engaging and entertaining, but also mentally stimulating. Unwrapped Sky is a writerly text[1] in that it requires active reading, and there is a lot in both these novels to get your head around, but the work does pay off for readers who willingly open their senses to the new, but also uncannily familiar worlds and characters found laid out here with sophisticated depth and some stunningly beautiful language. After the first half of Unwrapped Sky, however, what could be seen as hard work transformed, for me, into sustained enjoyment.

jen

Unwrapped Sky opens with a sublime sensual experience – the descent into, and passing through the coastal city of Caeli-Amur of over three hundred minotaurs – arrived for a festival in their honour. As they spread out into the city streets and we follow behind their huge shaggy heads and ridged horns, we meet the city’s inhabitants of various castes in their seedy haunts, including the key protagonist, Kata, a young philosopher-assassin who is compelled by her powerful instinct to survive to act in ways that betray her humanity. In Kata we meet a character whose moral and personal crisis mirrors the restlessly moving layers of political ideals and plots, planes of perception and existence, states of life or death, of gaining and losing power that structure this at once modern and ancient metropolis.

Kata contains in her well-defended centre a constantly vibrating tension, a tension that also pervades the city and its public and private spaces, its history and people, and those forces and beings who’s often obscured powers and presence actually control everything. This complex tension – frequently dialectical, and often revealing of some strangely familiar dilemma – hums vibrantly all the way through. The hardest work came early on when meeting the diverse citizens, refugees, urchins, street vendors and slum-dwellers who populate and keep the city of Caeli-Amur running. The New Men – technologists from Anlusia, the alienated factory, tram and dock workers, the bureaucrats and petty officiates who run the three Houses that control the city: Marin, Arbor and Technis. Particularly gruesome are the wastelanders from a zone beyond the city where death, presumably a constant companion, now reveals his stake in their corporeality as a ghosting double, fabulously witnessed in one as ‘floating to his surface like a corpse to the top of a pond’. Though I sometimes found these early sections stylistically uneven, and at times – dare I say it, labyrinthine – if you are as I am a reader uninitiated into the SFF world-building enterprise it really pays to press on at this stage to discover the many passages of stunning imagery to follow, images that work their seductive magic by drawing you bit by bit into their uncanny mysteries.

Most interesting to me were the magicians for hire, the thaumaturgists. Always dark-suited and meaningfully obscure in ways similar to foot-soldiers aboard a death-star, they are individually powerful and initially able to be manipulated by the House bureaucrats and deployed to crush uprisings. And the revolution is coming. The thaumaturgists of Caeli-Amur are among the weapons most feared by the seditionists plotting the overthrow of the Houses. And I confess to finding myself perversely needing from Davidson even more details in addition to the many provided on other themes, about what this never before imagined (for me at least) magical/scientific/mathematical practice of thaumaturgy could possibly be!  It felt rather important that I understand it, and yet it remained – enticingly –  just out of reach of my comprehension for most of the first novel. But just as Kata’s moral dilemmas compel her to both fight against and to learn to accept the impossibilities of love, of pure trust in another, of her faith in her role in the greater dramas around her, so too, I feel, the science and language of this mysterious and feared practice embodies the fragile tension that keeps all life in this world teetering on a glittering edge. Here is a taste of thaumaturgy, as attempted by moderate seditionist leader, Max:

“Maximilian began his incantations. He opened up his perception to zoologism, the life structures beneath the phenomenal. In this deep structure of things, he felt the numinous vitality of the fish as they swam in their barrel, ghosts within their scaled bodies. … Holding that perception to one side, Maximilian invoked the chymical equation to trap the weird power of the bloodstone and threw the red crystals into the air. There they hovered, a cloud of red dust, as he held them, suspended. He felt his own energy seeping out of him. The bloodstone cloud gave a shudder and radiated heat, burned him as he held it suspended the air, adding his own strength to the unnatural power.”

The greatest textual pleasure by the end of Unwrapped Sky was seeing how all these ‘just out of reach’ mysteries finally converge in a cataclysm – not just in the cataclysm of the final fall of the Houses along with their either megalomaniacal or tortured bureaucrats into their own tragically empty rhetoric – but something altogether more tantalizing, more evanescent. My understanding took shape slowly, but as I kept reading that understanding would teeter and slip away, only to reassemble in a slightly different configuration later on, one shimmering idea fading as another rose to assume it’s place.  And along the way these passing conceptions either fulfilled my needs to understand and hold clear in my imagination the innumerable intersections of history and ideas I was invited to explore, or they remained incomplete and unfulfilled as I struggled to understand. Instead of finding this frustrating, this was a reading experience like no other and I let myself experience it as it came, enjoying eventually the rising and falling in/completeness as the gift the writing bestows.

Everything in the world of Caeli-Amur is ‘just’ out of reach and beyond clear comprehension, and that is, I think, the whole point. The ‘Other Side’ – the main identified source of whatever powers Davidson’s unique version of the magic of thaumaturgy – silently envelops everyone so that they only gradually perceive something from the corner of their eye shifting around on another plane, but can never really be sure of what those dark shadows, leering skulls, shifting veils of awareness or feelings of moral decay inside like slowly growing cancers, actually consist. Thaumaturgy also appears to be about learning a language of unquantifiable power and then at the risk of substantial self-damage, mastering the balancing act to achieve successful transformation.

“For each thaumaturgical language—that of the world of life and that of the Other Side—was a broken descendant derived from a primary language, a pure language, the language of the Art, austere and elegant. It was mathematics to present-day thaumaturgy’s physics, the primary foundation. It did not operate according to the disciplines like illusionism or chymistry, but according to its own subcategories of quantity, structure, space, and change.”

Likewise, Unwrapped Sky holds many themes and ideas each with myriad sub-categories in a delirious balance. A descent through Caeli-Amur’s subterranean levels takes you back through time and history, the solid streets gradually giving way to a shifting underworld of incompleteness, shadow lands with doors leading nowhere but back to the beginning and end of things. A journey to a sunken library haunted by a Leviathan, ceases being logical at some point, but looking back I really can’t say when. In the seditionist hideout, one tortured soul, Omar, departs through mysterious doors in the night to be lost from all awareness. Altogether, the effect is both fragmenting and unifying, unsettling and fulfilling.

jen

It really helps to read Unwrapped Sky before embarking on The Stars Askew, if only to be informationally primed for the next journey. A more mature book, with tighter editing and more confident prose, The Stars Askew follows two of the same protagonists from the earlier novel after the downfall of the Houses: Kata, and Maximillian. The third key character from Unwrapped Sky House Technis Director Boris Autec, a romantically-deluded (and really quite appalling) bureaucrat, has already been satisfyingly and deservingly dispatched by his own hand in a viscerally horrific suicide scene. His central role is assumed in The Stars Askew, by his much less appalling underling, Armand, who has fled Caeli-Amur after the cataclysm to find support in the distant city of Varenis.

The three character narratives diverge for a long time, and the reader must also journey long with them through ragged and peril-filled landscapes. It is a different kind of reading experience to Unwrapped Sky, for reasons I will attempt to elucidate, but it is no less fascinating and engaging.  Very briefly Maximillian, who in the aforementioned underwater library acquired a psychic passenger in the form of the ancient spirit/god Aya, is struggling for control of his mind and body. Armand, naively hoping to be welcomed in Varenis by his Grandfather’s friend, Valentin, is betrayed and robbed of his faith in loyalty along with a potent ancient treasure. Kata, still searching for her true place in the schemes of Caeli-Amur, conducts a parallel investigation into the murder of a seditionist leader, with sidekicks Dexion, a minotaur; street urchin Henri, and another young seditionist, Rikard.

Yet, it’s really not fair to so condense these plots.  Both novels are deeply sensual experiences, and perhaps this is the facet of the SFF genre which opens up the field of play for talented writers to go far beyond what the conventional novel is ever able to offer in terms of aesthetic complexity. The prose in The Stars Askew is rich and eclectic. If Barthes has been able to articulate a third kind of text in addition to readerly and writerly, it would be what this novel provides – a painterly text. Davidson sees this world so vividly and wants his readers to be fully immersed in all the mysterious beauties and horrors, and creates it for us in rhythmic haunting descriptions and skillfully rendered sensations which he crafts with precision. Although, just sometimes the paint has been applied too thickly – occasionally the phrasing goes much further than it needs to – denying the reader the agency which Unwrapped Sky so generously provides.

Some of the key moments which stayed with me in The Stars Askew involve simply fabulous and evocative imagery which you can’t help but be affected by. Armand, whose betrayal by Valentin leads to his forced labour and unbearable agony in the bloodstone mines, witnesses those men who have been poisoned by bloodstone dust eventually be transformed into tortured columns of solid red anguish. At the last, they plant themselves in a field, permanent symbols of their own and many others’ future writhing agony. And thus arise the painful and shameful parallels with the human toll of inhaling coal dust and asbestos, the hideous poisons of industry.

Max and Aya’s intimate journey to the tower of Aya’s long lost lover, Iria, to secure the core of a machine to remove one of them from Max’s body, are assaulted along the way by a not to be missed three-headed Cerberus. Once inside the tower they activate an immersive 3D simulacrum of Iria’s last weeks, culminating in her haunting death – they watch on helplessly as the simulacra Iria assumes her place in her actual, but already ancient, thaumaturgically preserved cadaver. The scene is rendered so perfectly, the emotion so immediate, the idea (to me at least) so original. There are many more of these equally evocative moments in a narrative that awakens for readers intellectual, emotional and sensual currents of feeling – frequently all at the same brilliant moment. When the plots begin to converge in the last third of the book, the action well and truly takes over. Surprising twists energise these last sections and it becomes harder and harder to put the book down.

The writerly bliss of Unwrapped Sky and The Stars Askew is the ‘just beyond’ that remains elusive but tantalizing, and compels you at certain intersections to construct your own imagining. Each of the major characters in both novels engage in self-interrogation while journeying into escalating uncertainty, whether it be about the perils of power, ancient knowledge, or friendship and love, and they tend to not like what they find – even if we do. So one of Davidson’s successes here is creating the necessity for the reader to actively embrace the shifting perceptions, to see all that there is to see as always/already intimately connected, even when the narrative deliberately separates the threads. Through the idea of thaumaturgy as rendered here, Davidson conveys a signal allegory about the myriad costs of taking by force and then wielding the weapons of power – especially of the revolutionary kind. Its practitioner must have sufficient wisdom and skill to hold all elements in perfect balance, or else the effect is to drain and warp the body and mind, to pollute and disease instead of enrich and strengthen: and so it is in revolutionary history for the body politic.

But this revolutionary allegory is neither an easy or the only allegorical hook to hang understanding on, because it is brought to readers with beauty, subtlety, tenderness, humour and a good dose of shocking horror through complex characters and relationships. The allegorical significance is experienced uncertainly as it moves into, through and beyond an active reader’s imagination, in the same dark and seductive ways that it winds through the lonely Vias and Boulevards of Caeli-Amur with palpable sadness, a plaintive longing for something lost, or maybe never really quite begun.  And frankly, I just loved it all.

References
[1] Barthes, Le Plaisir du Texte, 1973, defines a passive readerly text as ‘pleasureable,’ and one where the reader is required to engage actively in their position as a reader and ‘write’ along with the author (a writerly text) then becomes ‘bliss’.

__________

Jennifer Mitchell is a Literature teacher, and has academic interests in the intersections between literature, modernism, and the built environment.

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One Response to “Unwrapped Sky (2014) and The Stars Askew (2016) by Rjurik Davidson: An inexpert review, exploring the Pleasures of the Text”

  1. […] traditional narrative tropes in his elucidation of the ‘New Weird’. This is followed by Unwrapped Sky (2014) and The Stars Askew (2016) by Rjurik Davidson:  An inexpert review, exploring …, a review by Jennifer Mitchell of Rjurik’s latest works in the Caeli Arthur Trilogy. Continuing […]

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