I first read this when I was 14 whilst recovering from a chill, and I devoured it in a couple of days. I have read it, and its companions, 'Gormenghast' and 'Titus Alone', five or six times since, and hope and expect to read them a few more times yet.
You read these books for their extraordinary prose, which has a flavour somewhere in the region between Dickens and Dali. While the plot is huge, intricate and subtle, plot remains secondary. The reader must allow the dense, intricate prose to paint its vivid pictures in the mind, as strange and idiosyncratic as the illustrations and paintings for which Peake is also famous. As a celebration of the English language he is there alongside the best of writers. Those in search of a good yarn may find such writing tedious, but for those who like to savour language this is a feast.
The books are frequently described as fantasy, but they are fantasy in a sense entirely distinct from the heroic fantasy tradition resurrected from the Norse, by Tolkien, Lewis and their like. In the world of Gormenghast what heroism there is, is bent and twisted and always ultimately futile. There is little space for moral manoeuvre where the roles of most characters are prescribed to a minute degree by an immutable ancient tradition. The world of Gormenghast is a vast crumbling castle, that has stood for time immemorial, isolated from the world outside. It could be anywhere or anytime. It is populated by a cast of characters made exquisitely eccentric by the castle and the entrenched, stifling tradition it represents. The wonderful characters whom we come to love and loathe include;
Dr Prunesquallor, obliged by his position to behave as a buffoon, but the one source of sanity throughout the insane unfolding of events. He is endlessly patient with his hugely neurotic sister, Irma.
Countess Gertrude, formidable mistress of a thousand snow white cats, who has more regard for her birds than for people.
Earl Sepulchrave, 76th Earl of Groan and father of Titus. He will go very mad.
Lady Fuschia. The sweet, innocent, vain, dear Fuschia whom we want so badly to protect from the cloying menace that surrounds her.
The mad aunts, Cora and Clarice, who take tea each afternoon in the boughs of a tree that grows horizontally from the side of the castle walls.
The fanatically loyal manservant to the Earl, Mr Flay, whose knees crack like pistols, and the despicable chef, Abiatha Swelter.
And then there is the wicked, wicked boy, Steerpike, who pulls the wings off flies and seeks to control them all.
These and numerous other more or less strange characters comprise the world of Gormenghast, into which is born Titus, destined to be the 77th Earl.
Whilst a whole industry has grown up around the emulation of Tolkien, the same cannot be said for Peake's Gormenghast, the other key 'fantasy' work of the mid-20th Century. This is because Peake was touched with a unique and original vision in the way that Kafka and Sartre were. Such writers were able to see through the contingencies of our world into other worlds so close to our own in form, yet utterly different in light and atmosphere, allowing them to create a backdrop for a strange and subtly distorted form of human experience. As events unfold we watch as the characters are deformed, each in there own bizarre way.
Having read a lot of fine literature I would say that these are among the world's great books and would be worthy of a posthumous Nobel. Everybody I know who has read them has had their imagination uniquely affected by the experience.