Mike’s Prattle


M. John Harrison – The Pastel City

Posted by Mike on October 17, 2006

One of the most anticipated reprints in recent years is the omnimbus called Viriconium, collecting two novels, a novella and a short story collection. While much of its reputation comes from the novella and stories written in the 80s, you have to go back to 1972 for the genesis of the city known as Viriconium, Perhaps, to some extent, its reprint was made more possible by some of the modern fantasists in recent years creating unique cities of their own like Jeff VanderMeer or China Mieville.

So it’s somewhat ironic that The Pastel City actually doesn’t take place in the Pastel City, even if Viriconium is a looming influence on the plot. The flavor and setting of this first novel obviously comes down from Clark Ashton Smith (Zothique) through Jack Vance’s Dying Earth, and in many ways it predates Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun with it’s far-future, civilization in its final throes milieu. However, Harrison’s prose style, even this early, is distinct from any of these very individual writers. It’s hard to imagine as a Harrison newbie that the “series” (it is and isn’t, but I’ll get to that some other time) improves so drastically, as in some ways this seems like Harrison reworking some of Michael Moorcock’s early pulp books with a more literary sheen.

The plot is very concise and simple compared to the labyrinthine complexities of most modern series, something I found pretty refreshing. It follows tegeus-Cromis, a fighter who would rather be a poet involved in a large war made possible through treachery. Its cast of characters are not drawn in detail and in retrospect certain figures like Tomb the dwarf are somewhat cliche, although this mad dwarf with rotting teeth has an 11 foot set of powered armor that gives it a bit of a different slant. And in fact, it’s the way the world is drawn that fascinates me, more the interaction of the characters with the novel’s events than the characters themselves as they encounter advanced technology and the horrors it has left Viriconium and its environs.

It’s true, Wolfe’s quartet trumps this in the overall scheme of things, and it is series and novels such as it that lessen the impact of The Pastel City. However, the wry humor of Vance is not here, nor the macabre weirdness of Smith,  and thus the flavor of the book is vastly different. I’m also reminded a little of Paul McAuley’s later Confluence series as well. Even Leiber’s novella Ship of Shadows. Looking forward to the next one.


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