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Tabula Rasa

Netherkind

By Greg Chapman, Ominum Gatherum 2019

A Review by Kyla Lee Ward

An ambitious, Barkeresque descent, Netherkind takes the risk of making Everyman a monster.

Deep under the earth dwell the tribes, those that were granted the powers of extended life, skin-changing and magic. The powerless, fit only for food, came to populate the surface and to call themselves human. Thomas knows only that he is not human, that he suffers terrible cravings and, if he denies them, his own flesh starts breaking down. But a secret such as him cannot be hidden forever and, as it turns out, not all humans are powerless.

Chapman's third novel surpasses his previous work in sophistication and imaginative flair. The torrent of grotesque invention all but runs out of control, as skin tears and bones morph, wings sprout and ancient prophecies lurch towards the Flaeschama to be born. But beneath all this lies a familiar tale. Thomas is a young man who believes, despite everything, that there must be more to life. When his fantasy is dashed, he flees into the underworld, encountering terror but finding companions and a purpose. To redeem himself, he must discover the truth of his origins and, in the process, shed his prejudices and those of society. Then, he will become a hero for his time. It's just that, in Thomas's case, this involves an awful lot of eating people.

As a metaphor for human relations and the exercise of power, anthropophagy is very strong. In Chapman's hands, it becomes not only alarmingly sensual, but the book's methodology, central to how the tale proceeds.

"Thomas dropped into the bloody murk and greedily slurped it off the floor of the carriage. His mouth was a vacuum, sucking up every morsel of digested blood and bone. The larger pieces he chewed and gulped down; the feeling of it sliding down his throat was pure ecstasy to the urge. The feeding was almost trance-like, with Thomas at its mercy. He shivered as he gorged himself, the act a whole-of-body experience that had an immediate effect upon his own skin."
Similar panegyrics punctuate almost every encounter, and how the individual reader responds will impact greatly upon her enjoyment of this book. But what could have been a mere cauldron of horrors is bound together by strong and memorable characters, such as Calea, the rebel Phagus who does not fear to consort with Skiift, the grisly hierophant Shal-Ekh, and Vorn the human sorcerer. In fact, I found the scenes involving the human contingent--Vorn's employer Niles and the mercenary Colton--and their journey, as outsiders, into the depths, to be among the most effective. However sympathetic a monster may be, the perspective of even an ignorant and villainous human, seeing such things for the first time, is the one that gets under the skin.

There is true vision here; of seething, anonymous cities, of secret, millennial wars, of humanity as ferals to be culled. If more is implied than is explained, and if the prose occasionally explodes, the story proceeds at a rocketing pace and the climax, as well as drawing things together, brings metaphor and method to a culmination that is actually quite beautiful. There is risk in trying anything different to the rotes of zombies, vampires and haunted houses, and in the case of Netherkind, I consider that risk pays off.

"I ain't no fucking vampire!" the creature said, spitting at them.
Vorn sneered. "But what you are is rude..."
 

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