Last month the blog welcomed contributor Dave Thompson with his review of Tim Powers’s The Stress of Her Regard, read by Simon Vance. Today he returns with another review, setting his ears on Viriconium by M. John Harrison, read by Vance for Neil Gaiman Presents:
Review by Dave Thompson: “A Not As Young Man’s Return Journey to Viriconium”
I have been to Viriconium once before – and appropriately – I find that the landscape of the city seems to have shifted since the last time I was here. Sometimes, it’s a bit difficult to find your way around, because as author M. John Harrison once stated, Viriconium is a place that cannot be mapped. It is its own mythology.
Viriconium is three novels and a collection of short stories. The first book – The Pastel City was my favorite last time, and might still be. It’s a tale of technological wastelands millennia in the future, filled with heroes, villains, princesses, and magic. It had lightsabers – baans, or energy swords, years before Star Wars came out. It has teagus-Cromis, the finest swordsman in the land, who was an even better poet. It’s a straightforward epic fantasy that isn’t a doorstop, and it’s the epitome of cool.
A Storm of Wings is the second novel, and Harrison makes some incredibly interesting choices, working very hard to do something radically different than he did the last time he brought us here. It’s a difficult listen at times because instead of fighting monsters, the heroes of the story are fighting something that ends up being much more abstract. It’s the longest of the stories, and it feels the longest. That said, it might also be the one I’m most eager to revisit.
The third novel is In Viriconium. Again, very different from the two that went before it, but this time the experiment is a glorious one – like watching the Coen Brothers make an urban fantasy farce riffing on epic fantasy tropes. It’s laugh-out-loud hilarious at one moment, then deeply disturbing in the next.
Then we get to Viriconium Nights, the short story collection, which is really interesting. Occasionally, characters from the previous books appear, but not always, and almost never quite how we remember them. Here is where Viriconium truly becomes an unmapped city – where all the contradictions of what’s come before in its history and characters are put on display.
Simon Vance is our tour guide through all this, showing off the different existences of a world, and tying them all together. He does a fantastic job reading Harrison’s stories.
It’s challenging, yes. It might even be frustrating. But I’ll be damned if I’m not already fantasizing about a return trip.
Dave Thompson is the host and co-editor of PodCastle, the fantasy fiction audio magazine. His own fiction has been published by Bull Spec and Apex Magazine, among others. You can follow him on Twitter @krylyr.