When my old friend John Bierce first approached me about reviewing his novel The Wrack, it was early April of this year, during the first round of lockdowns, when I was in the midst of my own pandemic-related project. He acknowledged the “awkward timing” of the request, but I expressed my interest, while warning him I might not get it done quickly.
Cue bitter laughter.
He sent me a copy later that month (I specifically requested a paperback copy rather than an e-book), and I got it in May, finishing it the following month, by which point the pandemic had only slightly abated. I wanted to reread it before writing my review, and a few months later began doing so, making notes as I went, and it’s now, seven months after he first approached me, now that I myself am one of the millions who’ve been infected (though, thankfully, my case seems to have been mild), that I’m finally writing the review.
And it’s going up on my birthday, the day I’m finally ending my quarantine and going back out into the world (very cautiously, mind you). Happy birthday to me.
He pitched the novel to me as “a standalone epidemiological fantasy novel,” and a “novel-in-stories,” and so, especially on second reading, it becomes clear that the greatest achievement of The Wrack is how it uses this model to craft a portrait of a world, to use the perspectives of…15? 20? different people, of different nationalities and sects, different social strata, and different attitudes and objectives to create their world, its cultures and faiths and mythologies, while at the same showing how the epidemic known as “the Wrack” wreaks havoc upon it.
The parallels to COVID-19 are unmistakable, at least until you read the Author’s Note at the beginning:
Several months into the writing of The Wrack, reports started coming out of China of some sort of new strain of coronavirus. Four days* after I sent the manuscript of The Wrack to my editor, the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
To say the writing of The Wrack was a weird experience is seriously understating things.*March 11.
How much the novel was reworked to draw closer parallels to the developing crisis, I cannot say, especially if it was publicly available by mid-April. Whatever the case, it makes it a vital work for the present moment, but it should be read on its own merits, the creation and population of its world being chief among them.
The best episodes, like the best short stories, feel like windows into a larger world; many of the characters in the book appear in only one chapter, but Bierce draws them so well that he only needs a few paragraphs to bring them to life. Other characters appear multiple times, sometimes widely separated, and other elements which were the center of one chapter will be referenced in another. A close reading, if not multiple readings, will behoove the reader, as Bierce has crafted his dense world with care.
I will quote the summary from the book’s back cover, rather than trying to summarize the whole book from memory:
Plague has come to the continent of Teringia.
As the Wrack makes its slow, relentless march southwards, it will humble kings and healers, seers and merchants, priests and warriors. Behind, it leaves only screams and suffering, and before it, spreads only fear.
Lothain, the birthplace of the Wrack, desperately tries to hold itself together as the plague burns across it and its neighbors circle like vultures. The Moonsworn healers would fight the Wrack, but must navigate distrust and violence from the peoples of Teringia. Proud Galicanta readies itself for war, as the Sunsworn Empire watches and waits for the Wrack to bring its rival low.
And the Wrack advances, utterly unconcerned with the plans of men.
That summary only hints at the multitude of places and characters the novel encompasses, and it’s frankly a bit daunting at times to take it all in. The fertility of Bierce’s imagination, even if his world owes some debt to the quasi-medieval worlds of much post-Tolkien fantasy, is contained only by the book’s brisk length—217 pages plus 20 pages of appendices—and the density of those pages arguably makes the book seem even more of an epic than had it been twice as thick.
I could cite any number of episodes and passages for their power, their humor, their relevance, or their sheer imagination. I will try to limit myself to a handful, rather than risk simply copying out the whole book. In fact, what I’ll do is try and pick a passage or two that illustrates each of the various elements of the novel’s success.
First, you have the way it depicts the sheer horror of disease, as in the sufferings of its first victim, Prince Arnulf of Lothain:
Benen was hardly expecting the sight of Arnulf thrashing about in his bed, a half dozen of his soldiers trying to hold him down. He varied back and forth between incomprehensible muttering and horrid, rasping screams. (9)
Those agonized convulsions and screams will become the primary symptoms of the Wrack, to the point that those around the victims become more unsettled by the silence between the screams than the screams themselves. But Arnulf’s sufferings will grow worse:
Benen had opened his mouth to explain for the thousandth time that magic didn’t work like that, when Arnulf tore his arm free from the soldier’s grasp. The prince convulsed screaming as he clawed himself across the face hard enough to draw blood. (9)
You get here a hint of the humor Bierce is able to layer into his story, and indeed humor pulses throughout the book, often a very dry and cynical dark humor, befitting the subject matter. But the horror returns, and it gets even worse:
There was a crack, and Benen’s eyes, both living and crystal, shot to the bedposts, thinking Arnulf had broken one.
It wasn’t the wood that had broken.
Arnulf had shattered his own bones in his convulsions. His left forearm seemed to have grown a new elbow—one lumpy and deformed. (15)
There are shades in this passage of my own experience breaking my arm when I was 9, rolling over to see the malformation in my left forearm, hearing my mother eep with horror as she saw what I saw. And that’s only part of what Arnulf goes through; Bierce describes his agonies vividly, but not sensationally. The overall effect truly unsettled me, and I specifically mentioned this chapter to Bierce as having affected me; he responded by saying
It was honestly kind of tough to write, and I think I only pulled it off by doing it through Benen’s medical gaze, which gave me a certain level of separation that made it easier.June 13, 2020
Arnulf continues to suffer throughout the night, screaming until his voice breaks and having his fingertips and toes turn black, a mark which affects all victims of the Wrack and remains on those who recover. But Arnulf does not, and you may consider it a mercy when he finally dies in the wee hours of the morning. So begins the book, powerfully and horrifically, but also showing the levels of detail and the streak of humor which keep the horror from overwhelming the reader.
That level of detail extends particularly to Bierce’s world-building, not just in inventing places and peoples, but in inventing their cultures and traditions. The whole art of seeing, alluded to in the mention of Benen’s crystal eye, is a major part of the novel’s universe, and described with such detail that it passes out of the realm of fantasy and magic and into the area of science fiction, which Bierce acknowledges:
That’s kind of my schtick—magic systems that operate consistently enough to be almost science-fiction.
It’s often referred to as hard magic, but mine tend to be a little more science inspired and influenced than many.
…the magic system in the Wrack is fundamentally tomographic in nature, and was inspired by using mineralogical microscopes in geology classes.June 13, 2020
As for how the novel describes seeing, or scrying, I won’t offer the entire explanation, but a sufficient taste of it:
Around and above Benen stretched an endless, restful sea of transparent, pale green energy. Gentle streams of spiritstuff drifted past him, like currents passing through a gentle river. It looked serene at first, but his vision quickly adapted, and he began spotting the turbulence where the physical world impinged upon the spirit realm. (11)
Bierce, of course, goes into a great deal more detail about the art, its particulars and its applications. The spirit realm, or the “Goddess Sea” as other sects call it, is to this world what the Force is to the world of Star Wars. But with a single, relatively brisk work, Bierce is able to do a very fine job of developing this…is it a form of magic? Or a form of scientific research? Whatever you want to call it, it is very well crafted.
Likewise, he develops the religions and philosophies of this world lovingly, putting a particular emphasis on the act of inscribing one’s name so that they may join their ancestors; for a name to go unrecorded is regarded as a great tragedy, and the efforts of clerics and others to record these names lie at the heart of several chapters, my own favorite probably being the story of the cowardly Ivrahim (Chapter 16), whose own career as a seer at a lonely semaphore tower—a means of communication which manipulates the currents of the spirit realm to relay messages—is related in detail before the event which changes his life occurs:
He shivered in the night air, and he saw the images flowing through the spirit realm. He could see many of them already far past him, rising along with the spirit current flowing south, too far away to make out now, lost to him. More marched along past him, and he could see countless more coming. The signals were all unencoded, and it only took him a second to begin reading them.
They were names. All of them names. (149)
Ivrahim only appears in this one chapter, but is a richly drawn character for the few pages we know him, and his story provides but one example of the book’s most resonant message. But we’ll come back to that.
As for the differences between the Moonsworn and Sunsworn, the Dedicated and the Patient, and between the other divergent sects in this world, even after two readings I couldn’t tell you much; that may be on me more than it is on Bierce, but it may also be that Bierce meant for the divisions to be arbitrary, that they exist mainly to separate people from one another. It seems a valid reading, given the message I’ve just alluded to. But it could also be that Bierce’s world-building is occasionally just a bit too dense.
But he leavens that with his skill at developing characters, his wit, and his sheer inventiveness. Take how, in a page and a half at most, we learn so much about Ivrahim, from his cowardice and pervasive anxiety, to his fleeing the hometown where he is uniformly scorned and becoming a seer, happy because he has an honorable profession, and happy when he is assigned to a remote semaphore tower because he prefers to be away from society (and he doesn’t get too chummy with the other seers at the tower), to the vertigo which makes climbing the tower, especially in the day, such a challenge for him.
But Bierce rapidly develops memorable characters throughout the book, from Carlan and Yusef on-Samn, who lead the fight against the Wrack in the city of Lothain, to Nalda, Yusef’s daughter, who goes to the source of the Wrack to investigate (and happily, the world Bierce creates is largely egalitarian in gender terms, and queerness appears to be pretty much accepted, at least whenever queer characters appear), to the pious, crotchety Priestess Verna, to the fearless maverick Eissa, who learns how to surf in order to reach a treacherous path up the face of a sea-cliff…and that’s just in the first half of the book. For all the density of his world-building, Bierce never overlooks the human element.
He does describe his settings with relish, however, a particular favorite of mine being the strange creation known as the Voice of the Empire:
The throne was unlike any other in the world. It was suspended on a small forest of wires, which stretched taut up to the ceiling, to the walls to either side, down to the floor, and to the wall behind it. The floor curved in a great bowl below the throne. The seat itself was fairly small compared to most thrones, but loomed high above the floor in its web of glimmering wire. It was fashioned of some secret alloy of metals that was redder than silver, paler than copper. (135)
That alloy is not only highly ductile, but carries sound impressively, so that an emperor or empress seated upon that throne can make their voice heard in a truly staggering way, as the Empress Phillipa—a tiny woman of 97—does:
Her voice rang out along the wires attached to her throne, and echoed down the wires spanning the ceiling of the room. Her voice came out sounding bell-like and inhuman, but it could be heard clearly throughout the entire massive hall. Its distorted echoes could be heard down in the city as well, and though the Empress’s words could not be made out in Ladreis’ streets, all knew that events of great import were happening in the palace. (137-8)
Ladreis is where much of the second half of the book takes place, and where many of the passages conveying the book’s most powerful message appear. Bierce warns us in his author’s note that The Wrack is “a weird, depressing little book,” but I think he sells his own work short. “Weird” is a matter of taste, and to a degree, so is “depressing,” but for all the tragedy and suffering we see, and for all the painful parallels to current events that crop up—the futile struggle to stop the spread of the disease, the cavalier attitude of so many towards the threat it poses, the rumors which are endlessly bandied about as the populace is gripped by fear, and the prejudices which thrive in the climate created by those rumors—the book ultimately shows how crisis can bring us together, how times of trial can bring out our most selfless nature, how necessity is the mother of invention, as it were, for that is how the story is resolved.
I won’t say precisely what happens, of course, but that the final chapter—which adopts a universal perspective, rather than that of a single character or group of people—evokes the ending of The Battleship Potemkin, a total coincidence as Bierce told me he’d never seen the film. It ends the book with the triumph of human unity, an ending which might be profoundly optimistic, but so much the better. It makes it the book all the more rewarding reading in these difficult times.
I’ll allow that I may be prejudiced in favor of The Wrack, as it was written by a friend and reviewed at his request. But I have read it twice now, enjoying it considerably both times, and I may well return to it later on. And I trust my tastes enough to say that any book which can be enjoyed multiple times has to be doing something right. I hope that I have convinced you that The Wrack does a great many things right.
Buy The Wrack in e-book, audiobook, or paperback format here.