by M. John Harrison
Review by Sam Lubell
Spectra Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 0553383159
Date: 25 October, 2005 List Price $16.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
The setting is the far future, after the afternoon cultures of Earth. Mankind have become scavengers, living off the remaining technology they no longer understand. Science has become a kind of magic and wars are fought as much with swords as by mysterious beam weapons. In this world there is one last city that has maintained a civilization and an empire, Viriconium.
In the first of the novellas that make up this book, "The Pastel City", the surviving warriors of the old king of Viriconium return when his daughter the Young Queen is threatened by the Northmen who have resurrected ancient technology to fight for them. This may be the most accessible of the stories, with some interesting characters, a warrior-lord who would rather be a poet, a nasty dwarf engineer, and the queen herself. The second novella "A Storm of Wings" is the complex and confusing story of an assassin in Virconium, the immortal bird lord and the fate of the Reborn men from the Afternoon Cultures. Other stories in the book include "In Viriconium" about artists during a time of plague, "Viriconium Knights" about a duelist's strange encounter with an enchanted tapestry, and a collection of shorter stories.
Still, the glories of this book is its language. This is not a book that should be read in a gulp but savored slowly for the richness of its descriptions. For instance:
"In the ruck and ruin of Soubridge, with its warehouses full of rotting fish and massacred children, during the long icy march through the Monar Mountains in winter, and at the storming of the Northeast Gate, these images came repeatedly between him and the battle: the insect with its expressionless faceted eyes, the woman with her jeweled spinaret. (Often he inflicted dreadful cuts on its carapace; or smeared her sleeve with blood; and once, as he fought his way through the streets of Viriconium to shake the hand of Tomb the Dwarf over a heap of Northmen's corpses, the flames along the Proton Circuit merged for a moment with the woman's strange writhing skein, so that his past and his present crackled in a lightening arc through his mind and he fell on his face blinded, and was taken for dead, no longer able to tell which was real--the airy whisper of the city fires or the roaring of that golden cloud....)"
In setting, the book resembles the work of Jack Vance, especially his Dying Earth series, and in style that of China Miéville. M. John Harrison is a practitioner of the "new weird" the cross-genre fusion that does not attempt to provide scientific explanations for the strangeness characters encounter. So Viriconium works as a mood piece, as a stylistic masterpiece, but is not well suited for those who demand logical coherence or straightforward action-adventure. Those who like to linger in their dreams, readers who like complex imagery for its own sake, and those who do not believe that the purpose of writing is to clearly and simply communicate events, will enjoy their stay in Viriconium.