The Cathedral of Known Things. Book review

cathThe Cathedral of Known Things by Edward Cox
Gollancz £16.99 paperback
Reviewed by Richard Webb (@RaW_writing)

The Cathedral of Known Things is the sequel to Edward Cox’s 2014 debut, The Relic Guild, previously reviewed here.

It picks up immediately following the events of that book. The titular Guild, ‘magickers’ with varying supernatural abilities ranging from powers of illusion, to mind-influencing, to shape-shifting, are in disarray. They are tasked with protecting Labrys Town, a human city with a population of a million. Labrys is at the centre of a vast Labyrinth which was once connected to the manifold Houses of the Aelfiran, a humanoid (possibly Elf-like) race. The Guild’s base, a building with a strange sentience of its own, has been overtaken by the Genii, a group of ‘higher magic’ users serving Lord Spiral. Spiral is the arch-nemesis of Labrys Town and the Guild, thought to have been defeated in a Great War some forty years before the current day timeline of the book. Following the war, all links between the Houses of the Aelfir and Labrys were severed, save one: a connection to a House that loyally supplies the city with the food and comestibles it depends upon, which is now under threat. The plot follows the Guilds efforts to maintain it, whilst searching for something with which to combat the Genii, all the while being ejected from Labrys and on the run from House to House, not all of which are supportive of their cause.

Yes, as you can see, there is complexity here, with the story carried across multiple plot strands and points of view, including those of the Genii antagonists. There is a lot of information to assimilate but is rarely at the expense of pacing. The strands are tightly woven together and all storylines move forward with clarity and purpose: no character is a spare part; no passages tread water. The book accelerates to its conclusion with juicy revelations but a shock held back for the final pages…everything a reader would want to compel them onto the final book of the trilogy, due in 2016.

This is a book about magic in many and various forms, and it is intrinsic to all that occurs. Because it is set outside of any real-world historic equivalent, with an anachronistic blend of technology and magic, it feels like anything can happen, and it often does, lending the book a sense of the unexpected. Also, because of this, the book does not have familiar frames of reference, incorporating touches of fantasy, horror and the weird but eschewing many of the regular tropes of the genre: it is quite an achievement to create something so different and so fresh.

Every page bursts with magic—in the action, the characters and the plot, and of course the relics and artefacts that are often central to the story. Arguably it represents the subtext of the book too, questioning how such capabilities should be deployed and the role of an elite group of magically-gifted individuals. It is a credit to the author that the magic with which characters are imbued brings them closer to the reader: it makes them vulnerable, responsible and understandable, when so often ‘powers’ make a character more difficult to relate to. The Guild members each have back-story, fleshing them out as individuals, imperfect and human, though it could be said there is room to develop them more as they progress through their travails.

As in the first in the series, much of the back-story is carried in regularly-interwoven chapters set forty years before the present day, in the time of the previous war against the Genii. Though occasionally it can be a challenging to keep track of both timelines, the author avoids the pitfall of just presenting the historic sections as sepia-toned back-fillers, investing them with immediacy and deep relevance to the present.

Lastly, none of this would work if it was not depicted with control, not just of the plot but of the prose too. Aside from much high-speed action, many of the book’s bravura passages are descriptive, bringing to life the many weird and wonderful worlds with fervid and sensual writing, without recourse to the hyperbole that can often undermine a fantasy setting in the mind of the reader.

It is an impressive sequel, building on its predecessor in its sheer inventiveness, scope and story development. It is hard to call anything ‘unique’, but perhaps this is as close as fantasy gets.

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