Low Loom Column, formerly a student of the College of Narrators, stands gazing out over the city of Tref with the bitter memory of a bungled student exemption from the military conflicting with the draft ticket that lies in his pocket. There is no hope for him beyond fleeing home, back to the mountains, but even that is stripped from him. He is trapped, forced to fight a war he wants no part of, taking his place as the battalion's medic, interpreter, and, of course, the narrator, bound to record the war and repeat the events over and over again.
["]An army is a horror. It's a horrible thing. They say you might change your mind about that when the country is invaded and your people are suffering wrong, but for me this is all just more horror, more army-horror.["]
The Narrator revolves around war and the army-horror that pervades it. Those first lines give the clearest image of the novel's contents, a brief glimpse of what lies in store as the book progresses. The novel shows these horrors in vivid detail, gives us a first-hand glimpse of the lives that war destroys, how war can infect people like a disease, and the ways in which it might transform a person.
But amidst the war, before and between the battles and the march, we are shown a fascinating world enveloped in the strange and wonderful. A world where cannibal queens hide way from eager followers, where corpses burrow from their coffins to join as a single, seething mass, where gravity-defying metals forged into bands and armor allow people to leap and skim across battlefields. Here, an asylum becomes an army, a massive ships sails the seas, destroying everything in its path, blue people and white people live beside humans, sleepwalkers bruise reality as they pass by, and languages can be learned by potion and make those who imbibe choke on words.
It is a world that exists in a state both advanced and regressed, separate from our own, but possibly an alternate version. Ministerial Ghuards wear what resembles power armor, forged from that light, gravity-defying metal. Infantry wield small arms and fling grenades via sling. Oddly, transportation seems limited to horse, foot, or ship. Standing cities are rudimentary, stone and wood and down from there, but great metal and enamel cities like in rusting ruins. And somewhere in this world, amidst the technology and the magic, there is an artist named Vinci.
["]It's through the rags of fast-moving smoke that I first catch sight of Tref. I'm standing in the pass, to one side of the pumice road, looking down from my perch on the massed roots of some dusty old cork oaks. The city below me is like a shining, smoking lake, thrusting its troubled glints into my eyes and making them smart. Overhead, the sun is lost in a white sky without circumference, above the flashing waters of the city.["]
Cisco displays a great talent for description that pricks at the imagination and summons imagery that is, if not relatable, vivid and effective. The above quote is a good example and the first of these descriptions in the novel. The scene itself may not be recognizable, but anyone who has traveled on a hot summer day and seen the false pools of water shimmering on the highway in the distance should be able to relate.
Cisco's descriptive quality is consistent, a standard that is never dropped and often amazing. He is able to paint a world that is beautiful and disturbing and ugly at the same time. The scene that best shows this involves the arrival of the Ministerial Ghuards, which begins in an almost glorious light--they are supposed to be looked upon in awe, the best units the Alak have to offer--and then the description continues, gradually devolving into a horrific display. They are revealed to be covered in their own excrement and surrounded by swarms of flies due to their refusal to divest themselves of their armor.
How war transforms a person, what it does to change them, is a large part of the novel. Many of the characters, the ones that share part of the spotlight, at least, are changed by the end, be that the end of the novel or the end of their lives. The best example of this, and certainly the character most changed, is Jil Punkinflake, a student of the embalming college in Tref, who befriends Low and is eventually caught by and conscripted into the battalion. When introduced, Jil is happy, energetic, and friendly. He is a nice guy, taking in Low, feeding him and showing him around the city as our narrator waits for his marching orders. The war transforms him slowly, but surely until he is nothing like the Jil we met back at the beginning of the novel. One can almost tell exactly when he becomes infected by the war, when he turns from shaking coward to something more crazed and angry. His infatuation with Saskia, a fierce warrior woman freed from the asylum and conscripted, no doubt aids in the transformation. And by the end, he is little more than a cowed dog at Saskia's side, responding immediately her demands and occasionally pulling at the leash, his anger and jealousy painfully evident and damaging.
The bulk of the story is a long, stuttered march that takes the battalion across land and sea. It pauses for battle, stalls in cities and towns to await further orders, and slogs on. The battles are reduced to Low's periods of consciousness, those moments when he is aware of his actions and surroundings, but they are confused, bloody, and quickly finished. There are no moments of glory in the narrator's eyes, just reckless, suicidal actions and more army-horror. The cities are given over to the bulk of the surreal moments, a short break that allows the book to abandon itself to the odd and fantastic. None of the occupations can match Tref for description or length of time occupied, which might explain why the city has a dreamlike quality to it that the subsequent occupations seem to lack. And, of course, the battalion slogs on toward death and madness and the horror of war in all its nightmarish glory.
The Narrator is not an easy read. Pay it less attention than it deserves and you are bound to be tripped up, confused, and too lost to continue without going back. It is a rewarding challenge and well worth the effort. Cisco is a superb writer, able to spin a story that stimulates the imagination, snags the attention, and leaves the reader swimming in that amazing, unique prose of his. Highly recommended.