So in this review I will work sort of outwards from the premise, rather than discuss it in story order. There are no plot spoilers below, but I start by talking about the world-map, that standard of fantasy, which is never actually set out in the book, but you can work out from clues.
Imagine a globe like our earth. There is one mega-continent, and it is divided like the brain into two hemispheres, separated by an almost-impenetrable barrier. On the eastern half of the continent human civilisation, comparable to that of Eurasia, has developed just as it did in our world. People believe that the mountain range was established by god, to block access to whatever is beyond.
Towards the end of the 15th century a pass is discovered in the mountain range, and a small colony is established in the new world. The new land is unformed, shape-shifting, and brings forth demons and monsters from the projected fear and greed of the colonists. Gradually, the land stabilises into a fixed form, and the colonists move west literally ‘settling’ the new world.
Two types of demon come to dominate the new world. These are The Line and The Guns. The Line are demons that live inside huge engines, control massive populations of slave-humans, and they spread industrialisation across the continent. The Guns are demons who live in guns and their agents are psychopathic cowboy gunslingers. The Gun and the Line fight each other, but the Line is winning, and the continent is becoming industrialised. Both sides in this struggle are horrible.
The other two elements on the continent are the Red Valley Republic, which represents the western values of humanism and democracy (and priggish humourlessness) and the First Folk, who are the fairy-entities who inhabited the continent before humans arrived.
In this story, colourful and likeable representatives of the Eastern continent, the Gun, The Line, The Republic and the Folk journey to the shifting unformed far west, to attempt to gain advantage in their on-going power struggle. I expect there will be a sequel.
One meaning of this story is obvious: it is a metaphor for the settlement of America. The various power-blocs represent economic and social forces, and the story is about how Europeans brought their own meanings with them to the new world, and imposed them on the fresh land, and then found themselves at the mercy of the forces they had unleashed. You can map individual terms and places onto America. The Republic (for example) embodies the values of Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman etc.
By extension you can widen the metaphor slightly to include the settlement of other colonised countries in Australasia, Africa, Canada etc. The Gun could be Australian outback bandits like Ned Kelly, or anything.
A big big problem with treating this story as just a metaphor for colonialism is that the original inhabitants – the First Folk – are not human beings. That is very problematic for the metaphor. Obviously from the point of view of the original inhabitants of America (and elsewhere), colonised land was not unformed or uncivilised – they had their own meanings already embodied in the land, and these existing meanings were overlooked or overthrown by the Europeans, who acted as if the land was empty and unmade.
People have objected that this book only expresses a western perspective (the new world as unformed, the inhabitants as mysterious and alien). I think this is true. In my opinion the Folk represent the Other in the western mind - not just aboriginal inhabitants, but impoverished rural whites, African slaves, magical beings and aliens. From reading this story we find out nothing about the experience of colonised and enslaved people, we only find out about what violent exploitation has done to colonists.
This may be an insuperable barrier to you, and you won’t read the book. I personally think that within that limitation, the book is meaningful. It is not illiberal or racist in its presentation of this subject –that colonialism is violent and exploitative – but it is a story entirely about the western experience, not the native experience.
I said at the start that the world-map looks like a brain. I think as well as a metaphor about the non-European world, this story functions as a metaphor for what happened within Europe, and within European mind, as a result of the breakdown of the religious hegemony of the Middle Ages. So, breaking through the ‘barrier that god established’ is a metaphor for the development of science, literature, enlightenment, humanism, mental freedom in general – and the price this has cost us, in terms of the destruction of nature, the spread of war and violence with ever more effective and terrible weapons, the exploitation of other human beings, the loss of the very values which brought us these powers.
For example, the representative of The Line (destructive industrialisation) is called Lowry. This is surely a reference to LS Lowry, the English painter of industrialism. The war which the Line pursues is like the Somme. The Gun is a glamourisation of criminal violence and destructive individualism (and also joy and sexual freedom) which is a force not just within the new world, but in European culture.
When I say European, I mean all European-based culture, in Europe itself, and in the lands colonised by Europe. But it’s about moving into new psychological and philosophical space not (at this level) merely about moving into new geographical space.
At this level, the book is much more relevant to me as a non-American reader, and once I grasped that it worked in that way (not just as an American metaphor) my enjoyment and interest was greater.
Finally, the story works as a mystical metaphor. At this level the Folk and the Demons are spiritual beings, who inhabit both our subconscious, and the wild world, and the underworld. One of the characters is brain damaged and can only talk in fairy stories. Towards the end of the book he tells this story (this is from memory, because I own it on audio not paper).
‘The warrior turned on the stairs of bone, emerging from the underworld, and looked directly at his wife. She disappeared like a joke that has been told too often. You cannot look directly at Fairy Land, The Underworld, The Secret Lodges, without destroying what you look at. You must see it indirectly.’
So the story, to me, is about the breakdown (or the overthrow) of rigid religious metaphors which temporarily shielded us from looking on these entities which can not be looked on directly. This is the same thing that I have been saying in other posts about needing to think about those aspects of life which can not be rendered in language but are nevertheless real.
The colonisation of the unformed land is about extended our mental maps to encompass previous unarticulated content. But by articulating it, we fix it and destroy it. Therefore we need to find means – metaphors and narratives and art – which allow us to interact with the hidden world, without fixing it into determinate simplistic meaning.
So, finally, I would say the third level of this book is about art and mysticism and new ways of being, and it follows its own prescription by looking at the Secret Lodges indirectly.