I came to buy this book because I was told it was a gem, a true classic of fantasy and wonderfully written. It is, indeed, wonderfully written. And that's the best I can say about this book. I persevered with the subsequents volumes, in the hope it'd pick up but I gave up halfway through volume 3.
I am more than happy when a fantasy writer tackles big complex stories. And John Crowley does by taking different narrative strands through different times, mainly the XVIth century and the 1970's in the USA. The problem is that the narrative complexity only seems to serve some sort of self indulgent complex narrative and no other purpose. By mid volume 3, nothing much had happened, if you discount dissertations about astrology and Hermes Trismegitus, 1970's new age babble, sex and a reinvention of Giordano Bruno's life. The strands of the story finally gathered a bit, but waiting two volumes and a half seemed to me just enough, thank you very much. Let's just say that it felt to me very much like trying to read Eco's Foucault's Pendulum all over again. (Which also means that if you like Eco, you'll probably like the way this book is written!)
You could say it is more of a contemplative novel. I wouldn't be averse to that if the characters held some interest to me.
I found the che characters to be unsympathetic. I could live with that, but when pages are devoted to their relationship problems, it becomes more than annoying. I couldn't care about Rosie and her child or more importantly the main character. The characters' development is mainly held by moments: childhood stories, visiting a cabin at the top of the hill, meeting ex-husband in a diner. All those moments are disconnected from each other by the narrative strands. At best, it is an Impressionnist depiction of the characters. At worse, like me, you'll feel no connection to the characters, their doubts or their unknowing quest. It is very frustrating, because as it is for the story, you feel that these characters have wonderful potential but that it is held back. In the subsequent volumes, I was also very ill at ease with how some relationships turned.
In the end, I kept going because this novel feels like there is something of epic proportions and interesting that is going to happen, is at the tip of the writer's pen. But nothing actually ever happens... or at least hasn't by mid volume 3.
I would say that this review is very much how this reader felt. Obviously, you could have a completely different opinion. But considering all the previous reviews were raving about it, I felt I needed to balance it a bit. But what I know at the end is that to me, yes John Crowley writes wonderfully, but to my taste, he is utterly unreadable.
This is a complex, long, ambitious novel, set in 1980s New York (the setting is semi-mythological) but harking back to the Renaissance; written in a careful, beautiful prose; it is a sophisticated work with lots of flashbacks, alternative paths and hidden references, some erudite, others simply literary - dramatic and psychological. The book is about history, or perhaps rather, the magic in hidden, alternate history, and especially about the writing of a history that never was and yet existed in people's minds. It may confuse some readers, and it goes slowly.
I first came across this book, the first part of an ongoing tetralogy, in the late 1980s, then lost sight of it, and could not find it anywhere (it was out of print for many years). It was never far from my mind, even as (as a Renaissance historian) I read and discarded Francis Yates and Ramon llull and moved on towards other, less Neoplatonic threads. In the meanwhile I read Little, Big, and other books by John Crowley. When Daemonomania, volume three of the series, first came out, it was upsetting that Aegypt/The Solitudes remained unavailable. Now, finally, this nice paperback reprint has given me the pleasure of a long-awaited read. This is really one long book in four parts, to be read together.
It took me about four attempts to get into this beautiful book, but once I did I was hooked and was completely immersed in it right to the finish.
Crowley's prose is world-class. His particular strength, for me anyway, is his ability to make you feel like you're grasping little pieces of the ineffable.
The historical vignettes about Shakespeare and Dr Dee were particularly enthralling.
My one quibble is that the central character seems to be little bit of a cold fish, and a bit humourless. It makes me feel that there's a dimension absent from what otherwise is an incredibly rich and multi-faceted story.
But that's just a personal thing that may apply to no one else.