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“The Vorrh” by Brian Catling

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Sculptor Brian Catling’s novel The Vorrh has earned praise from such luminaries as Alan Moore and Michael Moorcock. Set in colonial-era Africa, it deals with the quest of various characters to explore a fictional forest called the Vorrh. Journeying into the Vorrh is extraordinarily dangerous, as it’s said to be inhabited by wild animals, cannibals, and perhaps stranger things. But there’s a reward for anyone who can make it to the forest’s heart: the Garden of Eden, where God still walks.

This is an eclectic book, with elements pulled from different genres. The best way to illustrate this might be to list the characters who set out on the perilous trek: a man carrying a bow made from the bones of a mystic; a wealthy, bored French tourist; a young cyclops raised by android-like beings called the Kin; a former police officer who led an uprising against the British colonists and who is now hunting the bowman. Another character, a photographer suffering from the aftereffects of a traumatic brain injury, never enters the forest—he never even sets foot on the same continent—but is nevertheless affected by it.

Catling maintains a convincing atmosphere of mystery and eeriness surrounding the Vorrh, and some of the best parts of the story occur when that mystery takes on a distinctly ominous tone. For example, consider this passage, in which Ishmael (the boy raised by androids) tries to teach them to laugh:

“But when they came back and laughed for him, it was horrible. It was simply wrong, the grating opposite of what he’d felt and heard…They promised never to do it again. In return, he promised never to scream again, never to sob uncontrollably.”

The one major flaw in this book is the pacing. Once the various characters enter the Vorrh, the story easily keeps the reader engaged. I always wanted to get to the next chapter, to find out whether the hunter would catch up with the bowman, where the cyclops came from, and what secrets might be hiding deeper in the forest. But it took nearly a third of the book to get there. I enjoyed the complexity of the plot and characters, but would have preferred to see the titular location taking center stage earlier.

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