K.J. Bishop’s The Etched City versus Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow

After reading glowing reviews of K.J. Bishop’s first fantasy novel, The Etched City, and having a friend recommend the book to me, I bought a copy and settled down to read it. Now that I’ve (finally) finished, I must say I’m disappointed.

The prose is beautiful, and Bishop knows how to use her large vocabulary. But the book is a slog: unpleasant characters, soggy plot, imprecise theological maundering. The novel is ambitious, which I admire, and it flashes with occasional brilliance that lights up the page. But I kept waiting for something to pull the disparate clever flashes and promising elements together to make the reading worthwhile. That something never materialized—at least, not for me.

I can’t help comparing The Etched City to Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, which does a more effective job of handling theological reflection and encounters with the strange. Damnation, redemption, and salvation are fully fleshed in Russell’s characters and plot, rather than being nattered over primarily at mealtime, as in Bishop’s book. And the alien culture in The Sparrow is a more compellingly complex counterpoint to human expectations (religious and otherwise) than Bishop’s rose-and-blood infused city.

It’s not just my preference for science fiction that makes Russell’s the better book.

What do you think?