Richard Harland lectured in English at the University of Wollongong for a decade, before resigning in 1997 to become a full-time writer of speculative fiction. He has had 10 fantasy and SF novels published in Australia and the US, including Walter Wants To Be a Werewolf! and the Ferren trilogy. His novel The Black Crusade won the Golden Aurealis Award for Best Novel of 2004 in any category of SF, fantasy or horror. In this post Richard discusses D.M. Cornish's Monster Blood Tattoo - Book One: Foundling.
Richard Harland on Monster Blood Tattoo - Book One: Foundling by D.M. Cornish
When you think about it, how many thoroughly original, thoroughly worked out fantasy worlds have been created since Tolkien? Countless Lord of the Rings variations and countless semi-medieval, semi-Arthurian settings - but you wouldn't need many fingers to count the number of fantasy worlds created with the same kind of love and depth that went into Middle Earth. So it's a treat to welcome a new world that's as thoroughly worked out as it's original - and by an Australian author too!
D.M. Cornish is a highly regarded illustrator (for those who notice the names of illustrators), and he's followed in the footsteps of that other great illustrator, Mervyn Peake, by crossing over into verbal creation. Like Gormenghast, the world of Monster Blood Tattoo has a dark gothicky feel to it. But it's a much wider world, so complex and detailed that I hardly know where to start describing it...
But here goes. On a comparison to real-world history, in costume and culture and living conditions, it comes closest to 18th century England, but including some post-Industrial Revolution features. Geographically, it's more like the Dark Ages, with small areas of human habitation scattered among vast wilds where monsters hold sway. There are cities of up to two million people, but communication links between them are weak and precarious. In the past, great wars have been fought; but such large-scale public events are developed mainly in the Glossary (which is almost a book in itself). In Foundling, the ultimate centre of authority lies far to the north and the story takes place on the margins.
The main tension is the grass-roots conflict between humans and monsters. There are many different kinds of monster-slayers, who use mechanical cum magical powers against the many different kinds of monsters. Thus the skolds or habilists hurl chemical 'potives'; the fulgars have surgically implanted 'mimetic organs' which allow them to shoot bolts of electricity; while the wits or striveners use a sending or frission that affects the mind and nervous system. I could go on and on - there are so many intriguing details. I could also mention the dark trades dealing in corpses and corpse-products; gaulding, or the technique of making cloth bullet-proof; gastrines, which are living muscles inside metal-bound boxes, providing power for engines (not a million miles from the Plasmatics in my own 'Ferren' trilogy); leers who extend their senses by applying washes to their eyes or wearing special membrane-filled boxes over their faces.
But back to the story, which centres on Rossamünd, a boy who's been given a girl-like name. Rossamünd starts out in a home for foundlings, then goes on a long, partly involuntary, journey in order to take up the offer of an apprenticeship. This volume concludes when he finally arrives at his new job. By the age of its main character, the trilogy is aimed at a Young Adult readership, and has been shortlisted as such in the CBC awards. But my guess is that it's more likely to appeal to adults, along with the kind of younger reader who reads adult fantasy fiction anyway.
The story carries us across a small arc of this world, and discovering the world is the main excitement. Rossamünd is a fairly subdued character, whose distinctive trait is a knack of attracting adult friends and protectors. There are villains too, but Rossamünd's struggles to achieve (relative) success are interesting more for his rock-bottom origins than for any implacable enemies. Nor do the monsters seem as bad or threatening as human society claims - no doubt, more will be revealed in the trilogy's second and third volumes.
At the moment, it's not yet clear where the deeper tensions of the overall story will arise, or how many larger issues will become ravelled up in it. I can only gaze in awe and admiration at the world itself - and not only the phenomena of the world, but the language that goes with them. Like Tolkien, Cornish obviously cares a great deal about names and terms; like Tolkien, he habitually coins multiple words for the same phenomenon. You can absorb the essential atmosphere of the novel just by listening to the sound of its terminology: 'ashmongers', 'bothersalts', 'Cathar's Treacle', 'john-tallow', 'chrysmosurgery', 'threwd', 'vinegaroons' - and that's just for starters.
There's an authentic linguistic imagination behind such coinages. Although they've never existed in our world (so far as I know), they could have done. They possess the feeling and texture and downright oddity of real names and terms. And the oddity includes using coinages that actually have other meanings for us, as when a city is called 'Proud Sulking', or a 1,200-mile man-made gorge is called 'The Marrow'. Somehow, the ordinary associations fall away or become transformed in the new name.
It's a strange sad paradox that fantasy, the broadest of all genres, where anything is possible, has so often become formulaic, grooving narrow channels across all the imaginative realms it could explore. Even the word 'fantasy' is almost lost, so that fantasy writers outside the sword and sorcery tradition feel they have to invent categories like 'the New Weird' just to carve out a space for themselves. A book like this first volume of Monster Blood Tattoo may never be a huge bestseller; it's too dense and rich to be an easy page-turner. But it's the sort of book which will influence a hundred other writers, which its devotees will love unconditionally and which will make any true fantasy fan breathe a sigh of relief and say, 'Ah, that's what fantasy can be!'