The Empire - so-called - of Greater Fallowfields has dwindled, and now even the Emperor has gone missing. In his absence, a Cabinet of Ministers meets but with no business to carry out, they amuse themselves instead by rehearsing a play. There is a feeling of unease. There isn't even a real crown - that is missing too. An imitation one is to be used for the Coronation, because "nobody makes anything here anymore". The Ministers stumble through their days, encountering a range of customs that might be at home in Gormenghast
(though they are much less gothic). Their stipendiary sixpences cannot be spent: the post takes days to deliver because the postmen return home mid morning for their breakfasts: the Imperial Orchestra is staffed by serfs who endlessly rehearse the National Anthem (with daring variations, though this is apparently treason).
As in other books, Mills achieves a pleasantly defocussed tone by being non specific about references to the real world. For example, composers are mentioned, and we may guess who they are, but their names are not given. The approaching winter festival is the "Twelve Day Feast". The play that the Ministers are rehearsing may be MacBeth. Above all, the "I" who narrates the book - Composer to the Imperial Court (though the actual composition is carried out by one of the serfs in the orchestra) and one of the Cabinet - is never named, nor is his (they are all male, and indeed I don't think there is a single female character in the book, save perhaps for the dancing girls who are mentioned a few times but never appear) background (or any of the others) given. We are not told how or why they were summoned to join the Cabinet (in the absence of the Emperor) or where they came from. The creates a dreamlike atmosphere that is only intensified when Mills' narrator, browsing the Imperial library, encounters a book of fairy stories illustrated by what look like the cover art from his earlier books.
I suspect the effect this creates may divide readers: I rather liked it, as I liked the similar effect in The Maintenance of Headway
where the city may have been London but equally may not. Possibly others may look for greater clarity about the book's setting.
What I did find slightly disappointing was the ending, which brings a rather abrupt resolution to the story. It wouldn't do to give too much away about this, but - as the title hints - Greater Fallowfield's musty existence is under threat. It is a threat which the ineffectual Cabinet is ill equipped to meet (or even recognise). As a result the horizons of the book open out rather - but then, almost at a stroke, the Empire is restored. Or so it seems. I think there is a hint of unease, a sense that the Empire may now be something of a theme park (signified by the restoration of the Cake - don't ask) but even so it all seems a bit hurriedly done.
Though I enjoyed this book, I'm only rating it 3 stars because of that ending (perhaps it would be 3-and-a-half if that was allowed). I wouldn't want to discourage anyone from reading it, though, and I may be missing something clever here.