I haven't reviewed a Dutch language title since Profeet van de Duivel by Adrian Stone last November. Much too long if I am ever going to make progress in my attempt to get better acquainted with Dutch genre fiction. I've found more than I expected to find in the last year or so. More than enough to work with anyway. One of bigger releases of 2009 (which I completely missed at the time) is De Scripturist by Paul Evanby. Another one of those English sounding pseudonyms, it must be contagious. Evanby has a number of English language publications to his name. Most recently the novelette Mannikin appeared in Interzone #229. Not sure if it was a translation or if Evanby wrote it in English. There is a Dutch version as well so I suspect the former. De Scrypturist is his first novel and part a duology called Het Levend Zwart (literally: The Living Black). The title of the novel is a made up word but the similarity to words like script and scripture is obvious. I'd say "The Scrypturist" would make a fine title in English as well.
De Scrypturist is set in a world where symbols are much more able to influence the physical world. There is magic in symbols that can be turned to many uses. The language of symbols that is used to wield this power is referred to as scrypture and those who produce it are scrypturists. It is profession for men and women with a steady hand. The closer are symbol approaches perfection, the greater it's power and the longer it will last. In the past, scrypture was monopolized by institutions known as Chambers. These secretive organizations train scrypturists who will stay attached to the Chamber for the rest of their lives and guard their knowledge closely. In recent years a new sort of scrypturist has made an appearance. The so called Scraper's Lodge (named for the belief that its members are so poor they have to reuse parchment) has devised a whole new approach. By pooling their knowledge an alternate reality completely composed of scrypture has been accessed and developed. Evanby uses the Dutch word "schering" for this creation. The word suggests it is woven into our world in some way but I have yet to find an English translation I like.
One of the Scrapers is Mauric Dystergroeve, once part of a Chamber, he is now deeply involved in the Scraper's Lodge. He spends part of his time writing scrypture for a living but a man of his considerable talent earn enough to get by and still have plenty of time left over for other pursuits. They include roaming the scrypture-created alternate reality and constructing scrypture based entities. On one of his trips he discovers that his anchor, a fixed point of entry in the scrypture-based alternate reality, is under attack by a monstrous creature. A creature that is created by scrypture itself. There are a number of safeguards in place to prevent scrypture getting out of control, something that could have dire consequences, but none of them seems to work properly. The deeper Mauric digs in the mystery, the more worried he becomes.
Evanby's style of writing took some getting used to. I don't read a whole lot in Dutch at the moment and that is most likely part of it, but Evanby seems to be in love with punctuation marks. It's been a while since I read a piece of prose that contained so many colons for instance. Their use is grammatically correct but not always pretty. There are also a number of instances where commas seem superfluous. I found it distracting in the early chapters of the book in particular. On the positive side, I very much liked the vocabulary used in the novel. With some carefully chosen old fashioned words Evanby creates an atmosphere that reminded me of 19th century setting. Although the technology level doesn't correspond to that entirely, it did give the novel a feel Evanby was doing more than applying a bit of pseudo-medieval polish to his fantasy tale.
The way the author presents his magic system shows obvious parallels with developments we see in software programming. The secretive guilds, hoarding knowledge and money, as the Microsoft's of their world, while the Scraper's Lodge shows characteristics of the open source crowd. The Living Black is pretty hard to visualize, much of the debate about this place is pretty philosophic. The scenes presented in the book use utterly fantastic landscapes as a backdrop. One of it's uses is to connect scrypturists separated by large distances in the physical world however. A use not unlike today's Internet.
Another theme in the novel that shows a clear link to recent events is the suspicion and increasing influence of security forces in the city Mauric lives in. His nation is at war and although the actual fighting is taking place a long way off, the effects are noticeable in the city he lives in. Terrorism and ever stricter controls by the city guard are part of everyday life. Mauric is not impressed by the way his government handles the war and security matter. He believes the situation is being used as an excuse to impose further restrictions on the city's inhabitants and permanently increase the authority of the security forces. He's much to caught up in his own affairs to really take notice however. Something that will cost him later in the story. Some interesting social commentary here. One thing did bother me about the security types is that they are a bit too nice when it comes to making arrests. One would expect them to take someone in and then ask questions instead of the other way around.
I had a bit of a rough start with this book but I must admit it grew on me. Evanby has created and interesting world and a fascinating magic system. The finale of this book leaves a lot of questions unanswered however. There is quite a bit left to explore and more than a few story lines needing to be resolved. I thought there were a few too many rough spots to call this book excellent but it is certainly a promising beginning of the series. I guess the good thing about being late to this book is that the next volume appeared last November. De Vloedvormer (now that one is going to be a pain for a translator) is already on the to read stack.
Title: De Scrypturist
Author: Paul Evanby
First published: 2009