Thursday, July 11, 2024

Book Review: The West Passage by Jared Pechaček

A world peopled by creatures straight from the pages of a medieval manuscript, with a story strange enough to match.

Weird stuff reviewing continues! No really, this one is also baffling, although in a very different way to either OKPsyche or Rakesfall. In The West Passage, the debut novel by erstwhile social media fashion commentator, strange art purveyor and all round interesting person Jared Pechaček, the story is relatively linear and comprehensible, but the visuals? Ooh the visuals are something else.

The story follows two apprentices from the Grey tower, one learning to become a Mother, caring for people at death and birth, and holding on to a great memory trove of song-lore in the meanwhile, and the other training to become a Guardian, charged with the defence of the palace against the Beast. Shit, as it often does in stories, goes all wrong, and they both have to travel away from their home in Grey to try to put the world to rights, and find a way to stop the looming arrival of the Beast, who threatens to destroy everything. Along the way, they discover that all is not necessarily as they expected to find it in the rest of the palace, find friends and enemies, learn, grow and all that good stuff. You know, stories?

So what is it that sets this one apart? Why is this part of weird shit summer?

Well, for a start, look at that cover. Is that a lady with a tower for a head? Yes. Yes it is. That is very much emblematic of what you're in for here. It starts slow, at the beginning. Off hand comments about twiggy hair or spiny hands that catch on the edges of your attention - did it really just say that? maybe it was metaphorical? - that keep on building and building, little hints, little wrongnesses, until you can't quite ignore them. And then the book hits you with art like this:

That thing on the right? With the gothic architectural twiddle for a head? That's a beehive. It pisses honey. Just... roll with it.

And once you get to this point, the floodgates really open, and it all comes gushing (sorry) out. Pechaček really shines in his visual descriptions - of people, of scenery - and doubly so in his ability to capture abstract, the almost indescribable, with metaphorical and whimsical and often somewhat grotesque language. For instance, we have this passage on the Beast:

the Beast might pass equally as a subtlety at the banquet table of the apocalypse, or as a costume at a masque where every player represents three simultaneous crimes. Now enters Madame Murder, all blood and bone, who is also Sir Larceny, all grasping hands and covetous eyes, who is also Treachery, all knives and masks.

Does this physically tell us what the Beast looks like? No, not at all. And yet somehow we come out with a sense of it nonetheless. And there are many, many things like it throughout the book - things that we have no easy map for within the world of simple physical description, but to which Pechaček gives life through these little passages of metaphor. These descriptions are also heavily grounded in the assumed chronology of the world of the story - as you can see from the manuscript styling of the art (which varies according to where in the setting we are for that part of the story, incorporating visual aspects of different real-world manuscript traditions to give a sense of the relation between the areas of the world), there's a strong medieval flavour running through it all - and so they feel all the more tied into the story itself. They make use of concepts at least passing familiar to either of our two protagonists, to set the scene for the reader in terms that make sense for the story's frame of reference, and so never falter, never break the cohesion of our immersion. Likewise the steady creep of it all, the absolute rejection the classic wall o' text, brick to the face exposition, makes it all the more clear that strange to us is normal to the world. People with bird heads are unremarkable, so of course it only comes up in the text as it becomes relevant (for instance in what sex acts they can and cannot perform). Otherwise, it's just sort of... there.

But that doesn't mean there's no explanation in the story - far from it. I would, in general, describe this as a worldbuilding-forward novel. Much of the core story isn't really about the protagonists; they're just the people it's happening to. They don't really make choices that change the way the plot flows, or perform feats that no one else could do. Instead, they're the vector through which we steadily uncover the mystery of the world... within its own terms, its own lore. Rooted in the perspective of someone from Grey, we learn to interrogate the (very little) we know, and dig further into the wider, richer history of the place we call home, and to understand that the stories we know aren't necessarily the  immutable truth we thought them to be. For the reader, that means a steady, gentle exposition, that last pretty much through the whole story, of the core question that hits you on the first page - what on earth is this world? It's a story to explore an idea, to understand a place, and simply to visit it. To see its many parts and begin to know it. And that's somewhat delightful.

Especially because that place is playing with the common fantasy trope of the fallen world - the story takes place in a crumbling, decrepit, enormous castle-like structure, full of tumbled masonry, empty halls and piled rubbish. Nothing is as it was in the days gone past, and people yearn for the glory of the stories of old. So far, so familiar, right? But because this story is so lore-forward, so focussed on that self-narration, the way that this fallen glory comes across is precisely alongside our interrogation of the truth of it all. We are constantly aware, from fairly early on, of the unreliability of our sources, and so we are constantly on guard, watching for the potholes in these songs of greater days, wondering what other information might be hiding there. It makes for a very interesting experience. It also goes hand in hand with one of the areas Pechaček dwells on often, around worship, holiness and magic, and how that plays into the strict hierarchical and inheritance based system that seems to be in place in his world. The Ladies - with their strange and varied morphology - are extremely powerful beings capable of miracles, who head up a governing structure whose steepness is nearly vertical. Our protagonists exist somewhere near the bottom in an even further fallen bywater of this fallen world. The Ladies are worshipped. But how does worship - and holiness, and miracles, all words Pechaček uses directly in the text - exist in a world where that power visibly flows from beings you can see and touch? That's a mystery the text does not exactly solve, but you can feel it being lingered on, in moments, the way the story takes us to these parts of the world, gives us these moments of something... magical.

And that is a word I don't believe is used even once. People are cursed, transformed, charmed and otherwise affected by incomprehensible power... but not once is anything referred to as "magic". In a fantasy book. Isn't that interesting?

Historically, at various points, what cultures conceptualised as prayer, song, poem and magic spell has has intersected and flowed together in ways that seem strange to a modern, Christian, Anglophone mind. We have plenty of historical examples of the holy and the magical overlapping, combining and working together without qualm, or the one being in a place we might expect to see the other. And so it is absolutely fascinating to see a work of fantasy take this historical truth and run with it - so much of this story is rooted in an alien perspective, so why not this thing too? It's another little, subtle... and yet enormous, fundamental thing that adds to the rootedness of the story perspective, layering and layering up the different aspects of the telling to feed into the creation and uncovering of this strange, beautiful world.

But there is a story - and there are characters - and I don't want to imply those aren't a part of the telling. We predominantly spend time with the two above mentioned, who begin the story as Pell and Kew, and both of whom have somewhat differing but interesting perspectives, but who have a common home and a great deal in common in their foundations and worldviews. They are also both incredibly driven by duty, a motivation I'm always a sucker for in fiction.

Once again playing with common tropes, there's something of the traditional narrative to taking these impoverished, ignorant, lowly characters and inserting them into a grander story. But where in many others they might end up politicking with the great and becoming the focus of a world that previously did not care about them, here their interactions with power are generally fleeting, and rarely upset the status quo (and if so, never for long). This isn't a story of their rise through the ranks to grander status. The world has its inertia which one, or even two, people cannot fight alone, even if they want to. Politics, throughout the story, remain obscured and distant to them, beyond the scale with which they are already somewhat familiar, and they are often pawns in someone else's story. Things generally happen to them. And again, for the story being told, for this uncovering of a world, I think this decision really works, even if it makes a lot of the time spent with the characters somewhat melancholic. We see how trapped and powerless they are, how their ability to do their duty - however sacred - is hindered by forces utterly beyond their grasp, and it's hard not to feel incredibly sorry for them, sad for the state of the world they exist in, and by extension and resonance, sad about a lot of other things in the real world besides.

So this is not an entirely cheery book, I have to say. But it's not quite so grim as all that, in the main because much of the story is so focussed on uncovering all this lore, all this wonder, that the awe, fear, confusion and mortal peril tend in the moment to overwhelm the quiet, unrelenting sadness of it all. But it is there, and after closing the final page, it does sit with you - this is a story that lingers in the mind, both visually and emotionally.

Is it a perfect story? I will admit not. I found the ending a little rushed, and somewhat out of tone with much of what went before, precisely because of that rush - everything else has proceeded at its own pace, and given that sense of pervasive doom, inevitable sadness, and when you give a sudden uptick, those are hard emotions to maintain. There's also just quite a lot going on to follow in the last 5-10% or so, and I think some of the more emotive parts of it might have hit harder and been more impactful (read: heartwrendingly sad) if they'd been given a little more time to breathe.

There are also a couple of loose ends of plot - one of which feels somewhat significant - that don't really get tied up in any meaningful way. They just sort of... trail off, as the narrative camera pans past, in a way I found somewhat unsatisfying, rather than plot hooks for a sequel, or deliberate mysteriousness. And they do niggle, now I sit back to reflect on the story.

But on the whole, I think I'm willing to ignore them, because so much of what I got from the rest of it was so good.

It's a deeply strange, intensely visually driven book, and a story you read to get a mad ride through a baffling world, rather than to fall in love with people or to be carried away by events. But so much of what is it is so beautiful, so vivid, so enthralling, that even an intensely character focussed reader (i.e. me) could be carried away by it.


The Math

Highlights: beautiful but surreal and intensely visual world; strong emotional resonance; sheer wtfery

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

Reference: Jared Pechaček, The West Passage, [Tordotcom, 2024]

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