Sunday, August 4, 2013

Review of Viriconium Nights by M. John Harrison

Viriconium Nights, a 1985 collection of short stories by M. John Harrison, is to Viriconium what Tales from Earthsea is to Ursula Le Guin’s eponymous archipelago.  Filling gaps in the larger picture that remained after major portions of the setting(s) had been published, Viriconium Nights adds details, reinforces themes, and ultimately links or contextualizes the previous Viriconium publications: The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings, and In Viriconium.  Each of the stories, as abstract as it may be, works independently but should be located amongst the content published to date.  Accordingly, some revisit familiar characters and some bookend, some segue and while others offer vignettes into day to day life in the multi-faceted city.  The following are short summaries of the seven pieces in the collection.

“The Luck in the Head” – A story of surreal madness—in fact a near complete separation from plausibility—the poet Ardwick Crome is haunted by a strange woman who has a strange task for him.  Making the task all the stranger are his encounters with the mad poet Verdigris and the dwarf who is not a dwarf, Kiss-o-Suck.  In its madcap days, Viriconium comes to absurd, vivid life.

“The Lamie and Lord Cromis”  - It is a story about expectation.  But don’t read the story expecting it to be so.  Cromis’ journey with the dwarf Rotgob and Dissolution Khan in the hinterlands of Viriconium may easily be interpreted in another fashion.

“Strange Great Sins” – An eerie and strange story of a young man and his memories of an eccentric uncle.  Seeming an exploration of the strange behaviors that evolve in decadent circumstances, the tale is beautifully and disconcertingly written, and may be the best in the collection despite the peculiarity.

“Viriconium Knights” – Ignace Retz, the queen’s champion, must fight to defend the kingdom’s honor.  The reward awaiting him, however, is not what he had in mind.  On the run, he encounters visions that will shape his next move.  The most straightforward in the collection (but only relatively), it obviously is meant to be read with The Pastel City.

“The Dancer from the Dance” – Mad, mad, mad.  If A Storm of Wings was a descent into madness, then this story is that madness at play.  Quirky, unpredictable, and full of allusion to what I often know not, it is a good read for imagination and wordplay alone.  What else the reader makes of it will be their delight.

“Lords of Misrule” – In the time following the War of the Two Queens, things have quieted only relatively, and Cromis has been sent to scout the enemy in the countryside.  Coming upon a decaying and ancient mansion, he is bothered by the odd behavior of its poor inhabitants; history and reality seem to have little effect in the face of invasion.  Another subtly written, evocative piece.

“A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium” – Intended either as an intro or an outro to Viriconium as a whole, this story touches upon the details of everyday life in a manner few writers master the subtlety of.

Impossible to revert, I read these stories as part of the Fantasy Masterworks omnibus titled Viriconium.  I have been unable to confirm, but the order of the stories was perhaps recommended by Harrison, himself.  The shorts described above are located strategically between the novels, bolstering and complementing the individual themes and moods, and in turn elevating the overall Viriconium experience.  The stories can be enjoyed individually, but contextualized within the larger production, have all the more impact.  “The Dancer from the Dance” is a mad piece, but when read just after A Storm of Wings, is somehow madness with a purpose; “Viriconium Knights”, a short which expresses many of the typical themes of heroic fantasy, is the perfect opener to The Pastel City; and bookending the whole experience (for experience it is), is a “Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium” which both flows from In Viriconium and rolls the whole sequence over into the next… experience.  Given the numerous perspectives Harrison provides, however, it’s possible that reading the stories independent from the novels may provide a different and equally interesting point of view.  I’ll never know…

In the end, Viriconium Nights, regardless whether read in context with the other novels or independently, is an artistic statement of literary fantasy.  Harrison a master writer, each story is crafted word by word, drawing the reader in for its richness of style while playing games with the reader in content.  Not all readily explainable, the stories are not lightly digested.  Readers unaccustomed to games of allusion, deeply worked symbolism, weighty satire, and following (or trying to follow) subtext should avoid it, while those who’ve read this far in Viriconium and are looking for more will not be disappointed.   Rounding out Viriconium in fine style, Harrison brings his final point home: “Viriconium is never the same place twice. That is because—like Middle-Earth—it is not a place.”

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