Top positive review
51 people found this helpful
on 29 June 2006
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.