The Vorrh by B. Catling

The-Vorrh

Standalone, Vintage Books, 2015, 500 pgs.

At the heart of the world sits a forest, endless, impenetrable, and full of strange things. One man will try to cross it as a bitter mercenary tries to stop him. One unique boy will find his destiny in the center of it, away from the home of his youth and the nosy girl who barged her way into his life. A photographer will try to capture its spirit, a madman will guard its edges, and a writer will wander into it seeking fame or absolution or the first sense of himself. Regardless, all will go into the Vorrh, and none will find quite what they’re looking for.

And now to Negativity Fortnight, Part 2!

Like I said in our previous Negativity Fortnight, I was never going to like this one, strictly on the basis of what it was. Which is a shame; it was sort of good to get to a book that really made me analyze it, that was fairly challenging. There’s a hell of a lot going on in the novel, both symbolically and strictly plotwise, and on some level it was just nice to read something that made me feel like I was really using my brain.

Because The Vorrh is a complex interworking of postcolonial narrative, self-exploratory literary fiction, and classic quest fantasy. But, as good as firing up the analytical part of myself again was, and, as much as I hate to say it, for my money that’s also most of what’s wrong with it.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I usually want genre-breaking in my stories; I like unconventional mixes and new ideas. When they work they’re a beautiful thing, and there’s plenty an author used to literary fiction as a style could bring to a fantasy plot that I would love to read. Lit Fic’s sense of grey morality could help break down the easy dehumanization of the heroes’ enemies that a lot of fantasy worlds fall into, for example.

Or its eye for complex characterization could take the standard fantasy archetypes and deepen them, creating characters the like of which we’ve never seen before. Detailed sensory description could really aid in atmosphere and world building, etc. There are plenty of ways to go with this, but my main point here is that there’s a lot I would be glad to see imported between genres.

There are, however, also a lot of things that I definitely don’t want to see imported from Lit Fic. I’m trying to think of how to boil my myriad complaints down here, but I think my main issues come down to three things.

First, there are too many ideas pinging around here to coalesce into a sensible whole. I feel like this is probably meant to be post modern, but even knowing what it’s attempting to do I don’t like it. Second, the novel has a major problem with scale. I usually read fantasy for huge and worldshaking, and most of this book just…isn’t. It’s insular and navel-gazing, in a way I typically try to avoid. Thirdly, in an issue that is partially comprised of the first two, partially its own thing, while I definitely don’t feel like I’m reading stereotypical fantasy, I just feel like I’m reading stereotypical literary fiction instead.

And at least I enjoy stereotypical fantasy.

The book has about four major plotlines, and for the most part they don’t seem to really connect to each other in any real way. As far as plot is concerned, that’s fine, but with regards to the worldbuilding, it isn’t. Steampunk robots butt up against Christian angels and the Garden of Eden, butt up against witch doctors and Grecian monsters and eldritch abominations that live beneath the earth.

It’s not that you can’t combine all of these things, but you sort of have to do it gracefully. Here it’s just thrown in. The violently contrasting styles barely even interact with each other. Up until the very end they’re all relegated to their own individual plotlines, basically cutting off any ability for them to form into a coherent world.

And when you look at what the bones of the four plotlines actually are, well….

1)Douchebag genius who uses women.

2)Douchebag genius who uses men.

3)A young man’s sexual awakening and subsequent transformation into yet another douchebag genius.

4)Formerly colonized mercenary takes on a job to kill the man who means to cross the Vorrh, the forest of memory and story itself, so that in crossing he may “[heal] the gashes and fractures of our past.” (p 93)

Now number four was actually interesting to me. The sections with Tsungali and Williams are epic and insightful, combining a huge issue that the world is still trying to recover from with fantasy’s grandiose and mythic approach to storytelling. Think a fantasy take on Heart of Darkness and you’ll get the idea. It’s tight and adventurous, even with the anticlimax at the end, and if the entire novel had followed course I would have loved this book.

But one, two and three are pretty much exactly the sort of thing I run away screaming from modern literary fiction to avoid. So much of this is meant to be groundbreaking and so little of it actually reads that way to me. Douchebags being tragically romanticized seems typical to me, as do the awful things that happen as punishment for the smallest slights the characters make. Ditto the women being either endlessly giving, harshly punished, or complete ciphers.

Now, to the book’s credit, I don’t think we’re ultimately supposed to like the tragically romantic douches. Nor do I think we’re supposed to be unsympathetic to the female characters’ falls. But even knowing that, it’s still a little hard to get past lines like “He justified his weakness with the ill health and puerile wishes that all men have injected into them by their mothers…” (p. 110). Or the part where our young man turns out to be just so good he literally bangs a woman out of her blindness. None of this is anything I want to read in the first place.

I can typically deal with books that I consider sort of sexist, too, whether they’re pointedly so or not. For the love of god, though, give me any amount of chainmaille bikinis and bulging muscles that know what they are than this, which wants to be different but falls into the same old traps.

And, really, nothing about the above descriptions fully manages to convey how constantly and consistently The Vorrh managed to annoy me while reading. This was not a good ride for me. At all.

Like I said, a lot of this is that this book is just not my thing. There’s too much of what I hate about Lit Fic and not enough of what I love about fantasy for the combination to work for me. And being not my thing, aside from the Tsungali sections, it reads as alternately pretentious and ridiculous to me.

Let me put it this way.

I’m the sort of person who will stare at a passage for an hour trying to come up with a working interpretation of it. I’m very much the reader who wants to figure the riddle out, and I will reread and scribble and bash my head against it until I get at least somewhere. Here, I know, perfectly well, that there’s a lot of nuance that I’m missing in this book. Still, I have absolutely no desire to go back to it to try to figure it out. For me, that really says something.

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3 thoughts on “The Vorrh by B. Catling

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