by Thomas Wharton
Salamander, the second novel by Edmonton's Thomas Wharton, takes inspiration from the fictions of Calvino and Borges to tell a highly imaginative adventure yarn about the pleasures of reading, the sensual qualities of the book as object, and the very nature of storytelling. In Wharton's first novel, Icefields, which won the regional Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book, a late-19th-century doctor falls into a glacial crevasse in the Canadian Rockies. Salamander, set a century earlier, begins its series of stories within stories with a colonel who comes across a destroyed bookshop during the siege of Quebec. There, he's surprised to encounter an educated young woman who tells him a tale of a Slovakian count whose son has died in battle. To console himself, the count constructs a labyrinthine castle full of ever-shifting mechanized rooms and robots. The count hires a London printer named Nicholas Flood to invent an infinite book, but the young printer's affair with the count's daughter threatens both the project and Flood's future.
Wharton's narrative flounders at times by trying to float too many fictional devices and threads at once, but his central idea is delightfully challenging and will appeal to fans of postmodern fiction. The layered story he unveils is a modest model for the sought-after infinite book, one that could contain all possibilities by constantly shape-shifting itself beneath our very eyes. --Nigel Hunt