Fiction Reviews

The Stitcher and the Mute

(2020) D. K. Fields, Ad Astra, £18.99, hrdbk, 479pp, ISBN 978-1-789-54252-3


The second 'Tales of Fenest' novel, taking up right from the end of Widow’s Welcome (2019). A major player from the first novel has been poisoned to death so Detective Cora Gorderheim is drawn back into action.

The problem is that the book has a decided lack of action and quite a pedestrian pacing. Gorderheim has only three primary suspects to challenge but takes rather a long time going about it. Much of the book involves her following a paper chase of leads who each simply pass her on to someone else who might be able to help her. Gorderheim’s own estranged sister, Ruth appears to know a lot too but plays the ‘you must see it for yourself to understand’ card rather than just giving her vital information that would crack the case in a few chapters.

Much of the Fenest saga hinges on politics through story telling. Party manifestos are presented cryptically in orally presented public story telling events. This is an alternative to simply presenting a direct manifesto promise that might be kept or broken. The voters cast their decisions based on the quality of the tales told and what interpretation they take from the stories.

Fenest citizens believe in a whole Olympian style panel of gods known as The Audience, who see everyone’s lives as unfolding stories. On death we are not so much judged as subjected to literary criticism.

The killings Gorderheim is investigating are disrupting the election story telling process and undermining the rather puzzling form of democracy through performance art.

There are two lengthy cutaways to stories told by representatives of the two leading parties in the major election going on. In the first, two story-tellers share a mixed bag of tales. A large mansion has been sold to a wealthy family, but the last of the previous owners is still living there as they move in, as he is expected to show them where everything is and cater to their needs until they settle in. He clearly resents the fact that he will be evicted soon, and the changes they plan to make. He overhears them plotting to kill the old man and assumes he is the intended victim, but they have someone else in mind.

We do not see the murder that is being planned actually being attempted. The story switches to that of one of the previous owners, who is due to marry a bride he has never actually met. As a pre-wedding gift she sends him some plants which his servant puts in the garden only to see the main flower become a very rude phallic shape as it grows. Attempts to uproot the monstrosity before the bride arrives results in its seeds spreading and filling the garden with such suggestive weeds. The tale then shifts again as the bride proves to be a cyborg who was used to being able to fly and lamenting not getting enough elevation to do that in the lowlands she has now moved to. Her lover sets about arranging some way to get her flying again.

A tale of conspiracy? Not heeding warnings? Spreading further that which you try to stop? Not being ashamed to seek help from others? We are never told which meaning the people of Fenest are taking from any of this. What we get are fragments.

We learn nothing of the storytellers, or how they share the story details between them. It also runs like written text unable to hold a transfixed human or divine Audience for long. We get no gasps of astonishment or listener reactions. No one asks questions, not even Gorderheim.

The story is quickly taken up by the press who publish and peddle transcripts for those not present for the live telling.

Later, the second story is told by the opposition party rep, a solo reading told from the peak of a heap of poisonous ash. The tale is one of a young woman struggling to breed giant cockroaches. These are real (Gorderheim attends and bets on a cock(roach) fight). The roach farm is in financial problems and the breeder has difficulty legally registering her latest clutch of eggs due to the bureaucracy and having created a new cross breed. Again, we are given few hints as to where the story points, perhaps to a need to accept peoples from other communities (there is much emphasis on the struggles between regional migrants in the overall story arc).

Gorderheim just seems to bounce from meeting to meeting, story to story, waiting to be told what she needs to hear. Everything is fragmented and inconclusive. Even the title is misleading as the Stitcher, (someone who patches up the dead and ends up helping Gordenheim recover from injuries after an attempt on her life) has little to do with events while the Mute is barely mentioned at all.

The gods of The Audience, though listed in the opening pages of the book which also offers a pointless map of Fenest, might as well be any gods or god of any religion. Ultimately, the story reads like fragments and shards of multiple stories that fail to gel together though many show impressive writing from the unusual writing partnership behind this book, be it a single story or a thinly disguised anthology.

Much of the mystery at its heart involves a conspiracy to not tell people about an active and spreading threat to everyone but it seems inconceivable that it could be concealed even as long as it is without discovery.

Arthur Chappell


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