When should you read this book? When you’re longing for a cross between a Victorian adventure novel and a quasi-religious fantasy novel. Which, let’s face it, is always.
Can’t see the wood for the trees
The Vorrh is a giant forest, stretching from Africa possibly to eternity. Legend tells us that the Garden of Eden lies at its centre and that God made the forest so as to have a chance to be near his creations and walk a mile in their shoes.
The forest rebuffs anyone who tries to cross it, and many adventurers have been lost along the way. This doesn’t deter the Frenchman, who enlists the help of a local to get him to its centre.
In the only town to border the forest, Essenwald, busybody Ghertrude Tulp gets more than she bargained for when she sneaks into an abandoned house. Having staged a bizarre rescue attempt, she realises that the prisoner she has discovered in the basement is actually a cyclops – and that his true fate awaits him in the Vorrh.
Meanwhile, a mysterious bowman attempts to cross the forest. As his sense and memory fade in the jungle, only his unique bow can guide him onward.
Did you just – make a bow out of your girlfriend?
Yes, yes he did.
The bowman’s bow is actually made out of his girlfriend’s body.
In fairness to the bowman, his girlfriend was a very powerful forest mystic who instructed him on how to make the bow – but still.
The bowman uses this fascinating (but also gently coagulating) weapon as a means of guiding himself through the forest when it starts to erode the memory of his purpose. The bow also indicates its displeasure by twitching if the wrong decision is made.
I don’t want to give too much away about the bowman’s journey as he uncovers his memories as the book goes along, but needless to say, I never fully got on board with him once I found out he’d made his girlfriend into a bow.
The cast of characters
Other than the bowman, we meet a wide and interesting range of characters here and really get the sense that Catling is building a universe.
On one side we have the Frenchman. Given that the name ‘the Vorrh’ first appeared in a work called ‘Impressions of Africa’ by French poet Raymond Roussel, lots of people have made the link and claimed that he is (at least in part) the novel’s Frenchman. It seems it would be a nice little nod to him.
There is a strange coloniser/colonised relationship between the Frenchman and the local he enlists to help him enter the Vorrh. While he starts by completely renaming him (Seil Kor, after a character in Roussel’s ‘Impressions’), the pair form a very strong bond as the forest puts them to the test.
Ghertrude also forms an odd relationship with another woman in Essenwald, as they both attempt to retrieve the cyclops, Ishmael, from the Vorrh.
While these are the three main threads of the story, there are plenty of others which add wit and flair; the story of Edward Muybridge, a photographer and pioneer of motion imagery whose real-life story is touched by magical elements from the Vorrh, the slave drivers who run the Vorrh’s timber industry, the mysterious workers named the Limboia, an assassin who hunts the bowman… and so on.
The range of characters means that interest is maintained throughout the whole novel. And it’s a chunky one. Much as I adore a nice chunky book, it does require a decent pace and the Vorrh manages this nicely.
Following each character also gives us an interesting insight into the forest itself; how well characters fare in the Vorrh does seem to depend on the reason they are travelling through it. Curiosity alone does not seem to grant free passage, but is it kinder to those with a deeper purpose?
Religion and spirituality
The Vorrh is a giant playground for the imagination, and naturally this means that some degree of spirituality (and sometimes religion) comes as part of the package.
The character’s encounter with Adam (as in, Adam and Eve), is one of the weirdest and greatest bits of the novel and I refuse to ruin it for you now. Like every other episode in the novel, it’s beautifully written and a joy to read.
Instead, I’ll talk a bit about the Erstwhile. Originally angels sent to help protect the Garden of Eden, once the garden fell they lost their purpose and decayed into strange, quite comical little creatures, with a deep unarticulated fear of the world.
The angle from which Catling approaches Christian mythology is totally unique and compelling.
Associating Christianity with so much decay is a sharp contrast to local culture and shamanic spiritualism, portrayed is vibrant and powerful here – but the message is ambiguous.
Could it be that organised religion can’t hold its own when it comes to an entity as vital as the Vorrh? Or perhaps that the true value of Christianity has shrivelled and decayed because its believers can’t connect with its very essence?
I may risk an interpretation after I read the next book in the series (‘The Erstwhile’) but for now, I’ll give The Vorrh a light nine and head to the nearest bookshop.
How do you guys feel about fantasy? Love or hate?
Next up: ‘The End of Loneliness’ by Benedict Wells.