The strange bastard offspring of Mervyn Peake and Joseph Conrad, The Vorrh is an extraordinary beast. The premise is straightforward – a man enters a mystical forest, and those who protect the forest send a warrior to stop him – but the resulting narrative is anything but.
Initially released in 2012, the edition we get here is actually a trilogy in its entirety, presented as Parts 1 through 3. It comes with a fawning introduction by Alan Moore (whose metafictional League of Extraordinary Gentlemen certainly chimes with this, so much so that the titular forest features in his League of Gentlemen Century: 2009) and has pull quotes from Iain Sinclair and Tom Waits. This is an important piece of art, they claim. Moore describes the book as the first landmark work of fantasy this century.
There are lofty expectations on this novel.
At first you’ll be double checking those cover quotes. Are they serious? Do they really think this mess of a book, with robots, the Garden of Eden, Raymond Roussel, a cyclops, and a sex scene from the perspective of a dog, is worthy of being called a landmark work of fiction? The first hundred pages are a tangle of plot threads, with nothing to grasp hold of.
But then something clicks. And you get it.
Plots start to form, narratives twist and turn. The cyclops raised by robots, who is rescued and finds himself able to perform miracles; the two men delivering the corpses of babies to a shed of slaves in the hope that they will give them magical powers; the man making his way through the forest is hunted, before turning the tables. Perspectives shift and, at times you aren’t sure who you’re reading about. That Catling manages to keep your interest despite the confusion abound here is a testament to his writing skills.
This is a book about delving into the unknown, and the power that mysteries hold over us. It’s a novel about colonialism, and slavery. It’s a book about the dangers of controlling people. It may start out, like the forest itself, a tangled mess, but in the end it unwinds into something poignant and beautiful.
Any Cop?: Oh yes, very much so. This is a beguiling, and sometimes difficult book, but the rewards are definitely worth it. The first landmark work of fantasy this century it is not, but it is destined to go down as a cult classic.