Sunday, August 4, 2013

Review of In Viriconium (UK) / The Floating Gods (US) by M. John Harrison

Some may say manipulative, others artful.  Some say subversive, others expansive.  Still others say opaque, and others colorful.  But no matter how you relate to M. John Harrison’s Viriconium, one thing remains true: it is a jewel presenting a different facet with each publication.  The third of four perspectives thus far, In Viriconium is no exception. (In the US, the title was changed to The Floating Gods.)

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.

In the end, In Viriconium is a small but brilliant facet to Viriconium.  Lacking the epic sweep of The Pastel City and the haze of mood in A Storm of Wings, the novel instead focuses on the little details of a world as subjectively real as our own, likewise what a person makes of those particulars, and how it affects their mindset.  A piece with depth, the book is magic realism deserving of wider acclaim.  It goes without saying, the book comes highly recommended for anyone who likes their fantasy on the literary side.  Given the parallels the evolution of Viriconium has to Mervyn Peake's Titus novels, In Viriconium in particular bears comparison to Titus Alone for its pseudo-mimetic, magic realist qualities, not to mention each is a writer in complete command of their craft.


  1. I keep seeing him described as a writer's writer, and I keep thinking, "He's a reader's writer, too!" I'm glad you pointed that out. He's for lovers of language, and for any reader who has read enough fantasy to see the entire subgenre (nearly) as the same story repackaged over and over again.

    1. Sad to say, but I think almost all writers are 'reader's writers.' If somebody puts story to paper, guaranteed there will be somebody who nods their head and says 'greatest literature ever!' I can think of no other reason why people would read Conan. ;) That being said, the Nebula Award - an award voted on by a group of writers - sometimes recognizes some real stinkers...