Michael Cisco first came to the notice of weird fiction readers for his novel The Divinity Student, which received an award from the International Horror Guild. His new book, The Narrator, deals with a similar theme of the power of words, but is also a powerful look at the senselessness of war.
The main character, Low, is a Narrator, whose job is to document and record events as they happen. Having been drafted to fight in an ongoing war, he finds himself with a relatively high position in his unit due to his ability to speak and read multiple languages and his medical training. Their mission is to travel to the ruins of a lost civilization, at the center of which lies a source of power that could change the course of the war.
The battle scenes are presented in a way that highlights the “fog of war”: Low rushes from one wounded comrade to another, and whenever he isn’t treating someone, he’s hiding behind rocks or dodging from one position of cover to another. He rarely gets a look at the overall scope of a battle, and fighting both starts and stops without warning or apparent reason.
Cisco’s worldbuilding gives us a fascinating setting that mixes fantastical and technological elements. There are seemingly supernatural creatures like the one that Low and his friend Jil Punkinflake accidentally create, sleepwalkers who have a mystical effect on their surroundings, and magic charms. But at the same time, some of the defenses in the “lost city” appear to be technological in nature, as does a ghost ship that passes within close proximity to the main characters at one point.
The one weakness of the novel, in my mind, was pacing. Some parts of the story dragged on too long and weren’t able to fully hold my interest. I appreciate that Cisco wanted to convey a more realistic atmosphere than most war stories do, regardless of genre—instead of constant action, the characters spend a lot of time planning, gathering supplies, or just plain waiting for the enemy to attack—but I felt that the effect was sometimes overdone. But despite that, there’s a lot to like in this book.