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First, I should say that this book - actually, three novels and a number of short stories - is an excellent read. Secondly, it isn't exactly what you might expect from the Amazon blurb - the text about the murderous nightly games in Viriconium. That comes from the start of the first story in the volume, "Viriconium (K)nights". It suggests that these are stories of of no-holds-barred rivalry between picturesque factions of killers - you know, intrigue, fights, twists of fate, betrayal, all seething beneath the surface of the city.

Actually, it's not like that, it's much better.

At the surface level, the world of Viriconium is apparently our world tens of thousands of years in the future. Industrial civilization has risen and fallen, leaving its name (which nobody can read) in the stars - and a poisoned and depleted world, where people survive as best they can, scavenging from the past and nursing bits of decaying technology. The geography is vague (no hand drawn maps!) and all identifiable landmarks have gone, apart from the names of some (real) places and features (Dunham Massey; Rannoch Moor; Lymm) and (especially) Viriconium street names: it's fun spotting the literary or geographical allusions).

The first two novels (`Pastel City' and `Storm of Wings') explore the consequences of this and develop the idea in a number of ways, some subtle, some gross. While haunting in their atmosphere and very inventive, they are fairly conventional. Perhaps significantly, much of the action takes place far from Viriconium.

The short stories apparently fit between the novels and take a more personal, close up look at the lives of characters in this extraordinary world. They are much stranger, and focussed mainly on Viriconium, as is the last novel (`In Viriconium') Don't try to work out exactly what order these stories go in because it's just not like that. The same characters appear in what can only, I think, be accounted for as alternate versions of the same worlds. Characters who are heroes in one story show up as decidedly shabby in another. Even the names shift (so, Uroconium rather than Viriconium).

And what's going on with the repeated scenes? Events in one book are echoed, in a different context, elsewhere. For example, the encounter with St Elmo Buffin and his experimental telescope in "Storm of Wings" and a similar scene with Emmet Buffo in "In Viriconium" - similar down to the unsatisfactory snack of fish given to the visitors. Or the descriptions of the Mosaic Lane baths in "Lord Cromis and the Lamia" and in "A Young man's Journey...". Then there is the repeated theme of folk ritual - often involving dancers dressed as animals or with animal heads.

I'm not sure exactly what is happening here, but for me, the way the various stories intersect, reinforce and contradict one another recalls a mythology, or a body of folk tales, rather than a single narrative. It's as if the whole thing has grown up rather than being written, or the stories have been reconstructed from earlier versions, from underlying texts.

At the end, a link emerges between Viriconium and our own time. Its nature is enigmatic, though, and as with much else, we are left to wonder exactly what it means.

As other reviewers have pointed out this is a bleak world, a chilly place, an Earth almost wound down. But it is far from depressing. The short stories in particular portray a world of intense cultural creativity - they mostly revolve around dancers, musicians, poets and artists. And the description of the city is captivating and real - convincing not so much because of what is said but because of what isn't. You would only leave out so much - or allow so much contradiction - if you were describing a real place, wouldn't you? It must be true, or it would look more perfect.

Really, really worth a go.
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on 19 November 2000
In the first two books of this series, Harrison was attempting to write commercial fantasy somewhat at odds with his own talents and interests, more or less, as someone says, in the Moorcock mode. By the time he came to write In Viriconium and Viriconium Nights he had learned effectively that there was no point in his trying to write commercial fantasy because the fantasy he wrote wasn't commercial. I knew him slightly in Manchester, when he was writing in the basement of Savoy Books, who were essentially his patrons and great enthusiasts, who gave him the time and money to write In Viriconium, which they originally intended to publish but went bankrupt before they could do so. By freeing Harrison from the commercial restraints of the genre, Savoy allowed him to come into his own and produce the second two books in this volume, which in a sense are best read first, because this is invented-world fantasy about as far as you can take it and still have it bear any resemblance to the genre (upon which it comments so successfully). Harrison is not an under-rated writer, he is an under-published writer, and it is wonderful to see his work at last getting the status, respect and admiration it deserves. Jack Connolly.
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I stumbled across the Virocinum saga as it is part of the Fantasy Masterworks series, a brilliant introduction to writers relatively unknown (I found my beloved Jack Vance through this series of books).

This volume is very impressive as it contains not only the three books in the Virconium series, 'The Pastel City', 'A Storm of Wings' and 'In Virconium' but also seven short stories connected to this fine world.

The backdrop to these stories is very intriguing, society is in a phase known as the 'Evening Cultures' which are bereft of technology and live an almost medieval life. The previous cultures, the 'Afternoon Cultures' have died out and have left behind, in the shifting sands and bogs of the world, rusting technology and strange machinery. Against this backdrop we have a dwarf called Tomb, an immortal bird Lord called Cellur and a gloomy warrior turned poet, Tegeus Cromis, who work to defend their queen against invaders.

The mixture of classic fantasy is very cleverly mixed with splashes of forgotten tech being brought to life to marvellous effect. The city of Virconium is itself a character and low life players wander the gutters knifing each other in their strange intrigues.

On top of this heady mix you have the absolute word-intoxication of Harrison's prose. The man really is a frustrated poet and the imagery and emotion he conjures are really first class. In amongst this are strange place names, many taken from contemporary Scotland. There is a 'Nigg' Gate at one of the walls of Virconium, even a Henrietta Street, which is a street name in my hometown.

The books are heavy reading but worth pushing through as Harrison's unique writing style and the direction these stories go are oiginal and will remain with you long after you have closed the book.

An absolute must-buy for the reader of fantasy.
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Tellingly, Harrison's least accessible work gets better reviews here than the most mainstream (in so far as that word is at all applicable - I'm thinking of Light, for example). If you had a hard time with Light or any other Harrison novels this may not be the book for you, nor is it the best place to start, in my opinion.
The Viriconium stories are collected here in their (very near) entirety, and what an amazing collection it is. Set in the far, far future (possibly a billion years, who knows?), civilisation has died back to a uniquely twisted version of the medieval past, and its weary inhabitants are awaiting the end of the world. The novels are laid out in what appears to be chronological order, and as you move towards the end the tone becomes increasingly less straightforward and more hallucinatory. This is, among many other things, an extremely powerful meditation on death and decay. The ageing protagonists are beset by forces they cannot understand, they lose their memories, it becomes clear that they are the last generation with any knowledge of what has gone before, as the world enters a final age of ignorance. Depressing? Maybe. But Viriconium is written with lyrical and stylish prose with more economy and gusto than 10 average authors (of SF or otherwise); it's tremendously evocative of place and character. Readers who like to know what is going on in their novels from the off and follow such outmoded notions as "characters" participating in "events" that really "happen" in any meaningful sense should get with the times - it's the end of the world! And this incredible book communicates that on multiple levels. This is post-novel literature, and it would be ahead of its time if it were written today, let alone 30 odd years ago. Brilliant.
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VINE VOICEon 23 October 2000
I'm speaking here of the later volumes included, ie. "In Viriconium" and "Viriconium Nights" - I've yet to read the earlier volumes, though it sounds like sidclark (review below) is in the opposite position.
Viriconium is a city both strange and mundane. Its gods wander the streets (strange) and are mad for pies (mundane). A Plague Zone spreads across it, infecting its inhabitants with apathy. Our hero is an artist digusted by worldly complacency and irresponsible deities. Later stories take us further from the city and closer to our own world, culminating in Manchester and challenging us to measure how far we've come, with a telescope, or perhaps a microscope. Harrison's prose glitters like ice and offers cold comfort for escapists. This book is not what you expect, whatever you expect.
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on 23 August 2000
I have spent the last ten years desperately scouring second-hand bookstores for a copy of In Viriconium. While the first two novels in this volume initially seem to be little than above standard Moorcock, it is the third novel In Viriconium which completely and equivocably establishes Harrison's status as fantastist par excellence. A sublime and grotesque sensibility coupled with a deep and humane insight into matters of the heart. These themes are carried through in his later works like Climbers and Signs of Life. M. John Harrison is one of fantasy's supreme stylists, his language is elegaic and full of phrases that insinuate themselves in your mind like half-remembered dreams. He has achieved for fantasy in serious literature what J.G. Ballard achieved for science fiction: proof that writers of genuine merit and talent can begin in what seems like generic ghettos of fiction and create works whose depth and power is as important as any A.S. Byatt or Kazuo Ishiguro.
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on 5 September 2001
In Viriconium is one of the finest fantasy novels of the last thirty years. Heartbreaking in its realism, vicious in its satire, witty, observant, and stylistically in a class by itself, this is a book that can be reread again and again. The early Viriconium novels read like Moorcock pastiches but with a flair for vivid simile. They display an obvious impatience with the 'Fantasy' genre, but haven't quite found a way to dismantle it. In Viriconium however offered life in one of Calvino's Invisible Cities, a weird amalgam of Prague, late Victorian London, Paris, Yeats's Byzantium, and Venice. Harrison seems steeped in the English decadent writing of the fin-de-siecle, and there are echoes here of Wilde, Beardsley, Baron Corvo, Swinburne, Ernest Dowson and others. What emerges though is a powerfully original and intellectually challenging book that is far beyond the capabilities of most writers in the fantasy genre, let alone their readers, as can be seen from a certain review here.
Why MJH isn't better known, I have no idea. He's easily a better stylist than McEwan or Amis. Maybe he's just one of those like Christopher Priest whose books will always be caviare to the general. Buy this book and change your life.
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on 1 January 2016
I am not a massive fantasy fan but then Viriconium could be seen as science fiction being set in a far future earth were technology has mostly faded away yet life very much still goes on.

Viriconium does not like being defined at all though and in other stories it seems to shift slightly to become somewhere a little different, a world where even its very name slides elsewhere and elsewhen.

In the last two stories in this collection the city seems to crumble into a sort of contact with our world set at the time the stories were written. At the same in those last two tales Viriconium’s very substance fades. One character speculates perhaps it is because its deep age is wearing out its hold on reality. Athough the city fades from the minds of some of its own characters, Harrison’s writing is powerful enough to etch the city on many of we readers' minds.
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on 10 August 2001
The short stories here are heartbreaking because of what the author left out. He left out all the decent human qualities. As you read you try to put those absent qualities back into Harrison's world. By making you think about what's missing from his world he makes you think about what's missing from the one we live in, but also about the worthwhile things that are still here. He makes you want to find all the broken pieces and put them back together. That's why he's a genius and not a fantasy writer at all. I agree with people who say the first two novels in the volume are weak. But everyone has to read the short stories and In Viriconium or they will miss something so important.
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on 23 May 2001
This is a collection of Harrison's Viriconium writings. It is definitely a book of two halves - In Viriconium and Viriconium Nights are superb - they're atmospheric, evocative and enthralling and I've re-read them a number of times. The first two parts though are fairly average Fantasy which are okay but not memorable. This collection is superb value and is worth it for the last half and I believe it may be the only collection currently in print. Harrison is undoubtedly one of Britain's most gifted writers and is severly underrated.
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