July 25, 2011 at 10:38 pm (Review) ()

Viriconium by M. John Harrison is one of the seminal works in the fantasy genre. Not only was it one of the first works to seriously challenge conventional ideas about fantasy tropes and world-building, but it also continues to be listed as a major influence by writers such as China Mieville. Viriconium consists of three novels and several short stories (all collected in Gollancz’ Fantasy Masterworks edition and the black/silver Spectra edition) set in the same world and centred around the city, Viriconium, and with recurring characters, but it is important to note that it is a sequence, not a series, and that each story can be read on its own and that there is no fixed chronology. In fact, this is one of the aspects I loved about the collection; reading the final story in the Fantasy Masterworks edition, A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium, first instead of last would be entirely possible and not more or less correct than reading it first, but it would give the reader quite a different perspective (it has to be mentioned that Harrison himself has said that this story should always be read either first as last, however). Having said that, the order that the Fantasy Masterworks edition presents the stories in works very well.

The first short story, Viriconium Knights, works well as an introduction and establishes the major thing that you really need to know about Viriconium: That it is not rooted in reality, but moves in time, changes shape and shifts focus constantly. This elusive nature of the city is at the core of every story, and no two stories present the city or its characters in quite the same light. This means that Viriconium is quite a challenging, surreal reading experience at times. The reader isn’t thrown into this all at once, however; as mentioned Viriconium Knights provides helpful hints about what is going on, while the next story, the novel-length The Pastel City, starts out as a fairly standard fantasy story with a quest plot line, a band of heroes and an old sage trying to save the city from a conquering force. What makes this story stand out is the weirdness of the setting and the complexity of the characters. Harrison is known for decrying world-building as pointless, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that the world of Viriconium is in any way lacking; The Pastel City is full of rich, vivid imagery that immediately sets it apart from more traditional fantasy stories. There are metallic-coloured swamps, mechanical birds, vast deserts with ancient machines technology buried in them and, of course, the sprawling city of Viriconium itself with its deadly gangs, each with their token dress and cry, its bizarre buildings and disorienting, winding streets. Readers who love steampunk and New Weird writers such as Vandermeer, Mieville and Bishop should feel – almost – right at home. I say almost, because there is an eeriness and bleakness to Viriconium, and the land surrounding it, that makes it stand out from most other fantastical cities.

I warmed to Cromis, the introverted, melancholy and poetic hero of The Pastel City right away, but was also very interested in Cellur, an immortal so old that he no longer has any idea who, or even what, he is. Brave young Queen Jane, the old hero and soldier Grif and Tomb the Dwarf are perhaps less original, but still solid characters. I imagine that almost anyone who likes a good swords and sorcery story will enjoy The Pastel City. The only possible turn-off that I can image is Harrison’s prose, which some readers might find overly wordy, bordering on turgid. You need to be in the mood to read slowly and savour the language, which I thought was mostly brilliant, but occasionally overwhelming, and have a dictionary nearby – a native English speaker can expect to find a good number of obscure words that will need to be looked up.

The next novel, Storm of Wings, is considerably weirder and more dense than The Pastel City. It is set some decades after The Pastel City and begins with a similar plot: A foreign force is threatening the city and a group of heroes is sent to deal with it. In this case the “heroes” are a very far cry from what you would expect; in fact, they seem to be a sort of twisted, shadowy version of the band from The Pastel City. The character most resembling noble Cromis is a low-life assassin and the damsel of the group is a madwoman. The vague quest they embark on is carried out in a spasmodic, desultory manner – in fact, several of the “heroes” struggle just to keep their grasp in reality and minds on the task. The enemy, too, turns out to be very different from the evil horde that it initially seems to be. In short, Storm of Wings is where things really begin to become heavily deconstructed. Everything is coming apart, but in the city and in the characters’ minds. The other dominant theme is alienation; everyone seems to be stuck in their own version of reality, assuming that all the others are mad. While this sounds heavy-going, Storm of Wings is a very enjoyable story and doesn’t take itself too seriously to include some comedy.

The final novel, In Viriconium, takes the deconstruction to another level, but is at the same time less surreal and more subtle than the previous novels. It takes place inside Viriconium where a plague that drains inspiration and action out of people has spread to several quarters. The artist Ashlyme decides to rescue his friend and idol, the brilliant painter Audsley King, who lives in an infecetd zone. This, of course, goes terrible wrong. In Viriconium is a challenging read that picks up the threads from the other stories and ends with a conclusion that sums up Harrison’s point about the nature of reality very well. Like Storm of Wings, however, it is also very enjoyable and written with a sense of humour that makes it seem unpretentious in spite of its difficult subject matter and symbolism.

The short stories, too, are overall well-written and enjoyable, although I found some of them to be too abstract and bizarre, to the point where they begin to lose the reader. Overall, I would place Viriconium in the same category as books like Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun: A highly intelligent, challenging, surreal and enjoyable read that benefits from close reading and re-readings.

I highly recommend checking out this article by Harrison to learn more about the major themes of Viriconium and help you understand what Harrison is doing:


1 Comment

  1. Emera said,

    Oh my god, why haven’t I read this yet? I know that it was also a major influence on The Etched City, which is one of my best-beloved books; for some reason I never grew up with it as a “household name” in fantasy, though, so I suppose I was only dimly aware of its classic status. I love the idea of a flexible chronology paralleling the city’s free-floating reality, and of Pastel City/Storm of Wings being each other’s flip sides. My surrealism-loving heart is going pitter-pat…

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