Monday, February 19, 2024

Review: Finding Echoes by Foz Meadows

A novella with a distinctive voice in a distinctive city, that knows how to focus in on what really matters.

There is a story in this novella - a good one, as it happens, well crafted, well paced and interesting - but it's not what my lingering memory is, when I closed the last (digital) page. There were two other things instead.

The first, unsurprisingly, was the slow revelation of the relationship between the two main characters - their history, their circumstances, who they are and were to each other. We learn about them and their past through the slow unveiling of the world and their places in it, and there is a tentative deliciousness to the slow pace of our understanding, as well as an immediacy to it too. We met Gem and I immediately knew - as I imagine everyone does - "old flame". So it's not that we are waiting for a grand reveal that takes ages in the telling. We know the shape of it. But the deliciousness is in the slow unravelling of the details, a gradual understanding of all the steps that brought these two people to where they are now, strangers who were once close. And it is, let me stress, beautifully paced. There's a glorious suspense to the full understanding that lasts almost up to the final page and I loved it.

Why isn't this a surprise? I've read Meadows' work before, and he excels at this kind of emotional cave-diving. A Strange and Stubborn Endurance was full of thoughtful introspection, from two people is a slowly closing orbit, and it shares a substantial DNA in that regard with Finding Echoes. It is not misunderstanding, exactly, that fuels the drawn out unclarity of the relationships of Meadows' characters. I am by far less frustrated by misunderstandings in romance than most readers seem to be, but even so, that isn't what this is. Instead, it is a subtle and deeply empathetic understanding of the gulf between people, no matter how close they have been, want to be, might well someday be, that takes real effort and determination to cross. Especially for characters who are full of doubt, or wariness. Characters who have learnt not to trust, as Gem and Snow have in Finding Echoes.

And it is particularly well done here, because we only ever see the story from Snow's perspective, and yet we still get that depth of feeling from them both, through the interactions between them, and particularly the dialogue.

Which is the other strength I want to pick up on.

Language in fantasy is hard. It's hard to make up a bunch of concepts, and words for those concepts, and smush them all together in a way that the reader understands, but also reads as natural, as the sort of thing humans (or non-humans) would really say. There are so, so many stories in the failure-state of awkwardness where too many neologisms have been coined that the reader is swamped in them, and the author feels they have to spell too many of them out, lest confusion reign, and we never know that this things is basically a horse, it's just not called a horse*. Even if you avoid the worst of it, it is also just incredibly hard to hit just the right vibe, just the right atmosphere, just that natural voice that people have when speaking that needs to be crafted from the ground up.

But Meadows has done it. And done it so well I found myself noticing how coherent a voice all the characters from the same background really had when speaking to one another. There were a lot of terms thrown around, a lot of concepts to learn, about drugs and magic and mushrooms and technology and crime gangs and just slang, and yet they all coalesced into something that felt actually human. In the banter between Snow and Nixa, both living and working in the same section of the city, for the same criminal gangs, there emerges a distinctive tone, a dialect, that forms into something that feels real. Other characters share it, to greater or lesser extents, and the way they use the words, the way the unfamiliar terminology peppers their speech, never rings untrue as you read it, even as you don't understand it all.

And some of that is the charm - Meadows trusts the reader to pick things up in context, to go with the flow and learn the context as and when it comes (which it absolutely does). While I finished the story with some questions unanswered, I did not finish with any confusion. Everything that needed to make sense absolutely did - often in the way of the best novellas, with just enough explanation and no more. I could give you no etymological details, no fascinating trips down exposition lane, but I knew the stakes, the setting and the slang well enough to grasp what the story wanted to tell me, and to ponder at points where it might take me, before I got there.

The flip side of this, of course, is that this is not a story for the lovers of deep, expansive world-building. I do not say this because it is done badly - far from it - but it is simply not the focus. The world, and to a lesser extent the plot, exist to support the core the story is interested in. For me, this felt like it was that central relationship between two once-close people long-estranged. The plot isn't weak, but it's not the thing that felt like the sharpest focus at every point. Snow's gaze, through whom we see it all, is too often drawn back to Gem, or back into himself and his memories. Even as he lives through the events of the present, he dwells instead on the past, on the past of his life, of Gem's, of the city, of all of it, and so our focus too is drawn backward and inward, with the events of the now as a vehicle to carry us through. As someone who likes character-driven stories, for me, this was a strength.

I like that the world was sketched, rather than filled in meticulous detail. It felt spare in a way that was artful, rather than rushed - thoughtful about what was needful to tell the story being told. Especially in shorter format stories, I often find that cramming in too many extra bits and pieces of information makes the story cramped and bloated, when much of the delight of the novella comes from the brevity and speed, the snapshot story rather than the sprawling epic.

If you like this too, if you like stories that know what their focus is, that use every tool within them to support it, to create an artful centre - this may well be for you. It has a strong, interesting and admittedly somewhat traumatised pair of men at its centre, and if you delight in watching two people relate to one another across a gulf of years of separate experience, there will be delight here. I left it wondering - hoping - for other stories set in this world, about other people, other brief snippets of life and introspection in this setting, and with plenty of space and willingness to learn more about a strange city of walls. But equally, if this sits alone, then it will be more than sufficient, because even alone, it was a small delight.

*a passage in Trudi Canavan's Black Magician trilogy sticks out particularly in my mind for this, where she goes to great pains to explain the exact nature of a ceryni (after whom one of the characters is named), only for us to get to the end of it and realise... it's a rat. It's just a rat.


The Math

Highlights: two beautifully drawn, traumatised people trying to relate to one another, beautifully spare world-building, excellent use of language and dialogue

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Reference: Foz Meadows, Finding Echoes, [Neon Hemlock 2024]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat.