If The Pastel City is a work of classic fantasy and A Storm of Wings a piece of brooding surrealism, then In Viriconium must be magic realism—or at least somewhere in the neighborhood. The overall story is largely realist in tone (setting, character, etc.), however, there are more than enough tweaks, twists, and scenes of implausibility that not all can be considered concrete. Artists, astronomers, buffoons, fortune tellers, and poets abound, the novel is a superbly written piece of literary fantasy that brings Viriconium ever closer to the real world with one hand, pushing it away with the other.
The story is of Ashlyme, a portrait painter who lives in the High city but is madly in love with Audsley King, another painter who lives in the artists’ quarters of the Low city. At the start of the short novel, a disease is sweeping through the Low. Neighborhoods and communities are routinely closed to the general public and Ashlyme fears his beloved Auldsley, who refuses to leave the Low, will soon be cut off from his affections. Hired by the dwarf the Grand Cairo to paint the little man’s portrait, the two strike upon a plan to rescue Auldsley from the Low in their evenings together. Their mini-cabal, however, forgets to account for a few details.
The Pastel City and A Storm of Wings arguably equidistant from reality but on different orbits, In Viriconium rotates much closer to concepts that might be considered tangible. Stray moments and occasional allusion aside, the overall novel reads fairly straightforward: a man yearns for the woman he desires, but for reasons beyond his ken, cannot be with her. Thus it is in the symbolism—the allusion and moments of unreality—that Harrison lays out his ideas. The boorish Barley brothers, Fat Mam Etteilla the clairvoyant, and Buffo the lens grinder all occupy points of context in relation to Ashlyme, Auldsley, and the plague sweeping the Low. Acting as both traps and escape points for the characters, perception and expectation and the subjectivity innate to both are expressed, culminating in a beautifully artistic presentation of reality that is as subjective as our own.
In Viriconium's style, as with the other Viriconium books, is simply superb. Harrison takes his time with his letters, and the effort shows. The language is rich, complementing the story perfectly; little details thrive on each page; a proper literary carrot is dangled in front of the reader, drawing them onward beyond their control; and a salient sense of sheer delight in wringing warps and wefts from the text. Harrison is a writer’s writer, and for readers who love deliciously written text, their writer, too.