Viriconium

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: http://www.fantasticmetropolis.com/i/viriconium/

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Sharp Teeth

July 5, 2011 at 12:11 pm (Review) (, , , )

Sharp Teeth is Toby Barlow’s debut novel and winner of the 2009 Alex Award. It is a hard-boiled, urban fantasy novel about werewolves – and written in free verse. A combination which could easily have ended up either clichéd or pretentious in the hands of a lesser writer, but handled superbly by Barlow with his witty, elegant style and original ideas. Barlow has a new take on werewolves, heavily inspired by the behaviour of packs of dogs and wolves. The werewolves in Sharp Teeth resemble dogs rather than wolves, and are heavily dependent of their packs. A “coyote” – a werewolf without a pack – is a lost soul who won’t survive for long. Every pack has only one bitch, loved and revered by all the males, and serving as the social “glue” of the pack. The story follows three packs, one whose bitch abandons it when she falls in love with the dog-catcher, Anthony, a growing rival gang and a hunted third pack with only a heart-broken bitch and a few surviving members left.

Unlike the typical werewolf, Barlow’s wolves are mainly concerned with hunting each other, not humans. While humans do sometimes hunt them and are sometimes hunted for food, the werewolves have an entire society of their own. Humans represent more than prey or predator to the werewolves; often, lost or lonely werewolves seek shelter with humans, either by falling in love with one and hiding their true nature as wolf, like the unnamed female protagonist of the story, or by living the comfortable life of a loved pet and hiding their true nature as man, like the former pack-leader, Lark. While Sharp Teeth has plenty of urban grittiness and violence, the friendship between Lark and his human owner Bonnie and the love story between the female werewolf and Anthony are described with profound tenderness and insight. There is humour, too; some of the werewolves become fiercely involved in a bridge tournament while others retain their love of surfing, and Lark realizes to the full how good he has it when Bonnie picks up his shit in a bag.

The verse form, too, works surprisingly well. It’s always great when writers can pull off an unusual form without slipping into the ostentatious or gimmicky, and Barlow manages this by using the verse form in a flexible way that supports the pace and mood of the story. Violent, action-packed sequences are written in short, minimalistic bursts, while reflections or romantic scenes are more lyrical and written in longer stanzas. The language is generally modern and slangy with quite a bit of swearing. The more poetic stanzas are well-written and just infrequent enough that they don’t slow down the action. Overall, the verse form enhances the reading experience without seeming obtrusive, and as you get caught up in the story you will quickly find that the unusual form seems natural and barely noticable.

Sharp Teeth is a well-deserved winner of the Alex Award – It’s the kind of book I would recommend to pretty much everyone. The almost comic book-esque quality of the fast-paced, urban action combined with Barlow’s humour, ability to write touchingly without sentimentality and his love of dogs shining through on every page make it a hard book not to love. My only warning would be that some sources recommend it as a horror novel, and while it is often tense and sometimes sad, you shouldn’t expect it to be scary. Also, note that the Telegraph blurb on the back was written by someone who didn’t pay much attention – it states that Sasha and Anthony are in a relationship, and this is obviously not the case (it confused me for a moment, though).

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