M. John Harrison, Viriconium

It’s not an everyday thing but occasionally, a bookseller gets recommended a book that is truly worth reading. This is one of those books.

Viriconium begins with the story, Viriconium Knights, which if what I was told is true was originally published as a short story:

“The aristocratic thugs of the High City whistle as they go about their factional games among the derelict observatories and abandoned fortifications at Lowth. Distant or close at hand, these exchanges – short commanding blasts and protracted responses which often end on what you imagine is an interrogative note – form the basis of a complex language, to the echo of which you wake suddenly in the leaden hour before dawn. Go to the window: the street is empty. You may hear running footsteps, or a sigh. In a minute or two the whistles have moved away in the direction of the Tinmarket or the Margarethestrasse. Next day some minor prince is discovered in the gutter with his throat cut, and all you are left with is the impression of secret wars, lethal patience, an intelligent manoeuvring in the dark…”

There are few books which start with such powerful imagery and manage to sustain the impact through the rest of the telling but this is one example. Published as a compilation of all of Harrison’s Viriconium novels (the first being The Pastel City in 1971), this book has kept me enthralled. Like all the best books about cities and the places we live – most usually histories or travel journals such as John Reader’s Cities – the stories of one city are the stories of all cities, an exercise reversed by Italo Calvino in the fantastic novel, Invisible Cities.

Viriconium is a city at the end of time, the stories that Harrison tells are set in the time after ‘The Afternoon Cultures’ so in the distant future but at no point, even when characters discover a piece of ‘old’ and therefore fantastic technology does the story ever feel like a science fiction. Gollancz have released this book as part of it’s Fantasy Masterworks series but in doing so, they do the novel a disservice. At best, Viriconium is the muscular and less-pretentious younger brother of Mervyn Peake’s, Gormenghast, it is certainly not of the same sort of book as Tolkien’s, Lord of the Rings.

This book rewards even slight effort. The characterisation, style and rich storytelling all remain so strongly with the reader that it can be picked up and put down at leisure.