Viriconium Nights – M. John Harrison

Fair Use. From Amazon

Short stories set in Viriconium, a city so decadently Gothic that nobody quite seems to know where or how old it really is. I imagine it as Ankh-Morpork on absinthe, or some nineteenth-century metropolis riddled with dodgy architecture and obscure conspiracies. Although there are some reoccurring characters, like tigeur-Cromis and a melancholy dwarven jester, there is no overarching plot to tie these stories together. This combined with my ignorance of this series to confuse me, making me feel as though I was reading the footnotes without the main text.

Harrison’s prose is fantastic, effortlessly summoning a palette of black, brown and tan into my mind. The dank settings he conjures up reminded me of D. M. Cornish’s brilliant Monster Blood Tattoo, as an atmosphere of civilization decay is essential to both worlds. His dialogue feels emotionally authentic while describing completely absurd situations. Characters are subtly fleshed out, such as a hitman in love with a beautiful ballerina who cannot adjust to her social scene.

My main problem was that there was no sense that any event was important. I’d have appreciated a timeline of Viriconium events, or at least a map or something. But I suspect that would be to miss the point of the whole business. (I’ve also been hard at work this week, so that probably accounts for my lack of focus.)

My favourite story was the last, “A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium”, about two Englishmen who try to journey to the great city. Bathroom mirrors are essential to the process. The combination of magic and urban misery made the tale seem like something out of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. If I were editing this book, I’d have placed the story at the start to acquaint the reader with the whole Viriconium thing.

I think it would be best to read Viriconium Nights after checking out Harrison’s earlier Viriconium novels. That way you’ll get the context – tiguer-Cromis has to be the protagonist of at least one book. This is exactly what I intend to do. If this book is representative of what fantasy has to offer, I’ll be paying a lot more attention to the genre.

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