Ian Casey's Reviews > The Erstwhile

The Erstwhile by Brian Catling
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really liked it

The Vorrh was such an oddity that I appreciate it for its sheer uniqueness. It was a weird and at times surreal fantasy novel that largely ignored any and all fantasy fiction published after the 1920s. Even though I had mixed feelings about it in its totality, it was remarkably refreshing to read something so far removed from trends or tropes (modern fantasy tropes, at least).

What then of its sequel? The Erstwhile is assuredly a 'middle book' of a trilogy in the classic sense. Some storylines continue and others start, but few end in any definitive way. This is, after all, a world with all manner of bizarre supernatural and undead beings such that I wouldn't rule out any character playing a part in the third book, mortality notwithstanding.

For it to have been such a direct continuation does substantially reduce the impact of the strange elements, which in a sense is positive. The first book constantly challenged the reader with the sheer unconventionality if its depictions of fantasy elements - both individually and collectively - but, having once absorbed these, we can now focus more easily on the second book's narrative and the deeper implications of its imagery.

Once again we have loosely connected concurrent storylines occurring on separate continents. The core focus remains on the fictional German colonial city of Essenwald and its relationship to the giant magical forest that is the Vorrh. On the other hand, we have the adventures of a retired professor from Germany on a mission to England to discover more about the enigmatic and angelic titular beings of the novel.

As before, Catling integrates aspects of real historical events and personages. Exactly why would be a good topic for discussion and interpretation. Certainly it adds character and authenticity but he often seems to have something more in mind. This time we have a mid 1920s setting which makes use of the traumas of the first great war and the background bubbling of an embryonic Nazi menace emerging from the perspective of Jewish characters.

We also have some rather involved references to William Blake, both the man and his artworks. Much as occurred with the Vorrh, the book's cover art is from a painting discussed in the book. This time it's a stylised sample of Blake's 'Nebuchadnezzar', painted around the turn of the 18th to 19th century.

But for all of this, is it any good? Yes, I think so. It's a complex work that raises more questions than it answers - an acceptable trait both in weird fiction and in middle books - and is also readable on a superficial level. I definitely think it's worthwhile for readers who in any way appreciated The Vorrh.
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Reading Progress

March 4, 2017 – Shelved
March 4, 2017 – Shelved as: to-read
August 5, 2017 – Started Reading
August 10, 2017 – Finished Reading

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