Come, come, sit by the hearth here with me. This fine traveler’s compound doesn’t get much traffic this time of the year. The snows are threatening to close the passes to the west of us. You *are* going home to the West, of course. How did I know? No, no I am no sorcerer or magic user. I don’t need such things. The color of your skin, similar to mine. The cut of your clothes. The manner of your speech, when you bargained with the innkeeper for food, drink and a room. The load of porcelain and jade you are carrying, as evidenced by the small white jade ring you have kept for yourself and are wearing on your left hand. The manner of your shoes. I notice these things, I’m a storyteller. I notice details. And, as you see, the common room here is relatively empty.
I find that my skills are best honed when I practice them, and I’ve not been able to ply my trade. I’d like to tell you a story. No, I wouldn’t say no to you buying me another cup of wine, you are very kind. Now, I heard this story from a storyteller named Chris, of the family of Willrich. A fine man, Chris. He tells tales of a poet and a deathless thief, Persimmon Gaunt and Imago Bone, a married couple, who adventure across the world. You’ve heard of them already, perhaps? Their adventure against the sorcerer Spawnsworth, maybe? The story I want to tell you on this cold night, though, is about their adventure on a Silk Road very much like this one. It begins in the western part of Qiangguo…
The Silk Map is the second Gaunt and Bone novel from Chris Willrich. Following their adventures in The Scroll of Years, and not very readable without having read The Scroll of Years, The Silk Map is another nested set of stories and digressions that follow Bone and Gaunt’s desperate attempts to rescue their son. In The Scroll of Years, the novel ended with their son trapped within the titular magical item and the Scroll lost in the depths of the ocean. With no direct way to retrieve the scroll or their son, the poet and the thief have been traveling in the company of Snow Pine, who has similarly lost her daughter to the scroll. Their goal is to find a power, a God, an artifact that will allow them to rescue their children. Enter Lady Monkey, a Goddess, who has desires of her own and could free their children — for a price. A price that will carry them across the Silk Road to the west and into conflict for those seeking the same fabled treasure Lady Monkey wants: the Iron Moths, source of the amazing material known as steelsilk…
The novel’s nested story style — digressions and micro-narratives that comment on the main action, and a looping, spiralling indirect path for much of the novel — is a style that either works for a reader or not. It certainly worked for me as a reader. Willrich clearly models his stories on the underused forms of storytelling that Chaucer and Boccaccio used, but more importantly, after stories like the Arabian Nights and oral storytellers since the dawn of time. It’s a high wire act that Willrich makes work, and it’s very unlike most of epic fantasy being written today. It’s as if Italo Calvino and Milorad Pavic (of Dictionary of the Khazars fame) decided to collaborate on epic fantasy. Willrich also gets credit for being inspired by the Chinese epic novel, Journey to the West, a tale criminally not known among Western audiences.
The digressions, story structure and poetic writing compete with the inventive worldbuilding as the best things about The Silk Map. The first novel impressed me with its poetic and careful writing, a beautiful story to fall into and enjoy on the sentence level. The Silk Map continues that tradition, evoking characters, magical artifacts, and settings with carefully crafted beauty. It’s a novel to pay close attention to. To skim or read lightly, as one might do with some epic fantasy, is not only to miss out on the joy of the writing, but also to miss crucial revelations and hints as to what’s going on and the wonderful characters and locations and ideas invoked in this novel. It is as if Willrich has managed to use the Living Calligraphy (one of the forms of magic in his universe) in the writing of the novel itself.
The Bone and Gaunt relationship, though such a strength for most of the first novel, is a real weakness in this book. The banter between the two of them in the first novel was overall a joy. The sour denouement of that book continues into this one, and their very prickly, unpleasant relationship means that, as I read the novel, I was happier when the two were apart than when they were together. The wide range of secondary characters don’t get enough play, in my opinion, but what we see of them is delightful. I particularly liked Steelfox, a Steppe Nomad Princess with plans. Big plans. And so does her equally ambitious sister.
It’s not perfect, but The Silk Map is a fine entry into the genre of Silk Road Fantasy, and an indication, again, that Silk Road Fantasy can take cultures and ideas and remix them in new and interesting ways. Airship using steppe nomads! Ancient chthonic civilizations and creatures beneath the sands. A female Monkey Goddess. A Shangri-La, fiercely and cleverly defended. And all of this, really, with the style, the beautiful writing, the intricate style all centering around a straightforward story about family, and what one will do to reunite and protect one’s family.
There are further adventures in store for Bone and Gaunt, traveler, never fear, but this story is completely for now. Now, now, you don’t have to give me coin for my trouble, although I do appreciate the gift. And I thank you for it. Now, to bed with you, and in the morning, I hope you reach the pass before the cold snows keep you from your appointed journey. And if we should meet again, perhaps I will have the chance to tell you another tale. Fare thee well, traveler.