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Viriconium
M. John Harrison
Victor Gollancz Millennium, 462 pages

Viriconium
M. John Harrison
M. John Harrison is a lifelong writer and author of many novels, among them: The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings, The Centauri Device, and The Course of the Heart. Under the pseudonym Gabriel King, he and Jane Johnson have written The Wild Road and The Golden Cat.

M. John Harrison Website
ISFDB Bibliography: Gabriel King
ISFDB Bibliography: M. John Harrison
SF Site Review: Anima
SF Site Review: Things That Never Happen
SF Site Review: Light
SF Site Review: The Centauri Device
SF Site Review: Travel Arrangements
SF Site Review: The Wild Road and The Golden Cat
SF Site Review: The Wild Road

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Sean Wright

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This edition of Viriconium by M. John Harrison contains ten Viriconium tales that simultaneously haunted and awed this reader, a book that unexpectedly made me smile a lot. Harrison has a wicked absurdist sense of humour. Take "In Viriconium" as a fine example of the smile factor. In essence, it's a straightforward rescue plot, yet there are a lot of twists and turns, and a great deal of character building, something which stands out. Harrison's characters may be absurd and surreal, but they are totally believable in the context of Viriconium.

Ashlyme feels compelled to rescue Audsley King from the plague zone, returning her back to the High City where he feels she belongs. Indeed, his admiration for the artist is so great that he's even willing to share his studio with her, although she doesn't know it. In fact, she doesn't know that he has planned to abduct her, an absurdist plot hatched by a struggling astronomer, Buffo. But the tension is notched up a level when The Grand Cairo, a powerful yet nasty dwarf with a history of violence, commissions Ashlyme to paint his portrait and invites himself to be part of the rescue team.

The one scene of many memorable ones that defines this book for me is the bungled rescue of Audsley King itself. What a farce! Buffo and Ashlyme wear stinking rubber masks -- one a bizarre horsehead, and the other a fish. Now I know bank robbers and muggers have been seen to wear masks in reality, but the way Harrison writes the bungled rescue scene is absurdist, brilliant, and very dark. The power of the women who come to rescue Audsley King, who is wrapped inside a sheet, cocooned, drugged (another bungled attempt by the rescuers to knock her out), the power of the women is heart-warming. Buffo and Ashlyme are pathetic, and Ashlyme in particular from his own confessional point of view is plagued by guilt at his actions.

When push comes to shove, he abandons the rescue, but not before the most horrifying scene in the story unfolds. The Grand Cairo joins the failing rescue, and the bully imposes his violent personality on the women. One knocks him to the floor with a vicious elbow to his eye. When he gets up he stabs her in her open mouth.

If Harrison wrote this scene for the power to disturb, then it worked. I was shocked, shocked and sickened! I saw the violence coming, but I didn't see that vile response. Later, The Grand Cairo visits Ashlyme and reveals that he is head of the police investigation into the aborted abduction and the murder. Such ironic power games flutter through much of the book, small twists that make you think that Harrison's world is terribly corrupt. I think what makes The Grand Cairo so cruel is his lack of emotion in his sordid dealings. He is extremely ruthless, and besieged by his paranoid perceptions that the Barley brothers are plotting his downfall. He revels in his power, plays Ashlyme for the fool he surely is.

However, despite the corruption and violence, Harrison has a way with words which is enchanting and beautiful. The other nine tales in Viriconium echo this. From "Viriconium Knights" to "A Storm of Wings." His events are very memorable visually. Just take the antics of the Barley Brothers, who seem to be to a metaphor for youth as well as from the entranced folk of Viriconium's perspective, an almost clown-like distraction, one which absolutely infuriates Ashlyme. For some reason beyond me, the feel of these absurdities reminded me of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, with the fortune teller aspects of the story in some ways echoing Stephen King's Gunslinger novel in The Dark Tower sequence. We do, after all, bring our own reading to bear.

The unpredictable twists and turns of events, and characters' reactions to those twists kept me alert as a reader. Predicting what Harrison might deliver next in the fantastical, dark world of his was near impossible. The slow squeeze of the plague throughout "In Viriconium" gave this book a feel of overwhelm. The characters' own fears of the High City being taken by the plague are of course fulfilled, and near the end of the book the one surviving Barley brother speaks powerfully, summing up the central idea of responsibility as a collective.

"The citizens are responsible for the state of the city," Gog Barley says. "If you had only asked yourselves what was the matter with the city, all would have been well." Indeed, but it is too late for some. Highly recommended.

Copyright © 2006 Sean Wright

Sean Wright is three-time British Fantasy Award finalist, editor and publisher at Crowswing Books, and an outspoken voice at Lotus Lyceum, a multi-user open community of fantastic fiction. He's the author of books set in the mythic mindscape world called Jaarfindor. His vibrant blog is a port of call for many sff readers, writers and editors at www.seanwrightblog.blogspot.com


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