This review needs to start with a caveat: readers with a genre-only background who loved The Pastel City and are looking for a continuation of that story in A Storm of Wings be warned: along with being someone who has voiced his dislike of worldbuilding for worldbuilding’s sake, M. John Harrison is a writer who challenges himself and readers. This means, a couple of characters do return and the setting is still Viriconium, but presentation, mode, plot, pace—nearly every other literary category—has been approached from a different perspective. Far more lyrically, emotionally and atmospherically dense than The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings is art rather than genre. Be advised.
Eighty years have passed since the Queen of the South successfully defended the onslaught of the North. She still sits the throne while Tomb the Dwarf, the man who orchestrated the kingdom’s defense by bringing the Reborn back to life, has returned to roaming the deserts and wastelands, searching for old technology. The Reborn have not had an easy time adapting to society. The centuries they spent trapped in mental prisons, stuck somewhere between dream and reality, causes many to go into random psychotic fits or mad altogether. Alstath Fulthor is one such Reborn trying to find peace with himself, his jaunts in nature one day bringing him into contact with Cellur the Birdlord. A change in the air, the pair head into Viriconium for a talk with the queen.
Streets a mix of squalor and luxury, rising madness and orthodoxy, the setting of Viriconium truly begins to breathe in A Storm of Wings. The pastel towers of Queen Methvet Nian in the High City look down upon the muck and grime of the Low. Markets overflow with thieves and fishwives, fortunetellers and murderers. Lunatic gangs and mercenaries roam the streets, “conducting business”, while poets run mad and artists create scrap with trivia. A religion is also building power, one which decries reality to be a false truth, its adherents wearing the image of a locust. Chaos evolving, the city bursts one day when a person has the life-size head of an insect thrown at their feet. But for Galen Hornwrack, finder of the head and a man who lives in vice without destiny, life will only become more strange as the implications of the object slowly reveal themselves, the city spinning out of control.
One odd scene, strange character, and only relatively explainable event at a time, Harrison slowly escalates A Storm of Wings into the stratosphere of the Surreal. Defying the genre roots of The Pastel City, the novel breaks wholly away from standard sci-fi and fantasy and heads into unexplored territory. A madwoman with near Tourette’s, the appearance and disappearance of the floating vision of a space traveler, and a labyrinth that loses its guests and sets them raving are only a few of the elements at play.
I have read reviews that state Harrison intentionally built up genre fans with The Pastel City to pull the rug out from under their expectations with A Storm of Wings. Given that 90% of Harrison’s work is in the genre would make this seem unlikely, however. A better description of the book would be the exploration of perspective. That Harrison himself advises “Viriconium is just some words. There is no place, no society, no dependable furniture to “make real.” You can’t read it for that stuff, so you have to read it for everything else.”, the reader must prepare themselves for a less-than-tangible experience. The result only partly realist, it seems certain Ballard would approve of Harrison’s alternative look at the Viriconium setting.
Dense in a haze of meaning, possessing temporary touch points that leap off into moments of abstract speculation, and currents of mood that move like the deep ocean are just a few expressions that begin to describe A Storm of Wings. Thus, for readers who enjoy their prose poetic (at most times brooding), it will be a treat. For those who expect more plot, action, and readily explainable anchors to concrete ideas, it may be a disappointment. The bottom line is that it’s a book to be felt and experienced rather than read for entertainment. Readers unwilling to invest the time in such a heavy read should avoid, while readers seeking out the artistic side of the genre should run, run, run and buy this book.