Friday, November 5, 2010

Middle Shelf Selection: The Pastel City by M. John Harrison

Some seventeen notable empires rose in the Middle Period of Earth. These were the Afternoon Cultures. All but one are unimportant to this narrative, and there is little need to speak of them save to say that none of them lasted for less than a millennium, none for more than ten; that each extracted such secrets and obtained such comforts as its nature (and the nature of the Universe) enabled it to find; and that each fell back from the Universe in confusion, dwindled, and died.
By all rights, M. John Harrison's science fantasy The Pastel City ought not to work as well as it does. Almost all of the elements in the trope-laden epic have appeared in far better-known works. The plot reads like something Tolkien might've whipped up for an early draft of The Lord of the Rings. The barren, blasted setting recalls the desert world Arrakis from Dune. And, like Star Wars, it gives a prominent place to exotic energy weapons that that are like swords only awesomer. But Harrison's first novel in the Viriconium series succeeds largely because of elegant diction and incredible action, which form a whole exponentially more fun than the sum of its derivative parts.
tegeus-Cromis, sometime soldier and sophisticate of Viriconium, the Pastel City, who now dwelt quite alone in a tower by the sea and imagined himself a better poet than swordsman, stood at early morning on the sand-dunes that lay between his tall home and the gray line of the surf.
Viriconium, that metropolis whose multicolored spires bear ancient glyphs none know how to read, stands at a bridge in time. The kingdoms that dwelled in the Afternoon of Earth's history have faltered, and now only Viriconium remains as humanity enters its Evening. But the Northmen do not care that all flesh may be approaching its end. Nursing generations-old grievances, their leader Canna Moidart, embittered niece of the legendary ruler Methven Nian, would see Viriconium's Proton Circuit and the Bistro Californium burn if she cannot rule. The only hope for the true queen lies with tegeus-Cromis, the best swordsman in the land and former member of an elite soldiering corps. Charged with gathering his old comrades and routing the Moidart's approaching armies, he heads north -- only to learn of a second threat. While crossing the Cruachan Ridge, he is accosted by an odd messenger, a croaking, clockwork vulture that warns him to fear the getit chemosit, a creature of which no one in the land seems to have heard.
In the water-thickets, the path wound tortuously between umber iron-bogs, albescent quicksands of aluminum and magnesium oxides, and sumps of cuprous blue or permanganate mauve fed by slow, gelid streams and fringed by silver reeds and tall black grasses.
Style is not substance, and yet what lends The Pastel City much of its panache is Harrison's stately prose. Where epic fantasy tends to grow garrulous and overlong, he keeps the proceedings punchy. Instead of situating the action in the typical pseudo-medieval locale, he plunks it into a post-apocalyptic milieu reminiscent of Michael Moorcock or John Christopher. And rather than resort to bland description, he fills passages with explosive color, making both ancient royal dwellings and blasted industrial wastelands burst with exotic hues. Such embellishments cause the story to feel fresh even when it wanders through well-worn territory.
The momentum of the charge carried Cromis twenty yards into the press without the need to strike a blow: Northmen fell to the hooves and shoulders of his horse and were trampled. He shouted obscenities at them, and made for the knoll, the smugglers a flying wedge behind him. A pikeman tore a long strip of flesh from the neck of his mount; Cromis hung out of the saddle and swung for the carotid artery; blade bit, and splashed with the piker's gore the horse reared and screamed in triumph. Cromis hung on and cut about him, laughing. The stink of horse-sweat and leather and blood was as sharp as a knife.
Then there is the combat. To be blunt, I have yet to read another novel that infuses its fight scenes with so much ferocity and terror. Exalted and awful, agonizing and magnificent, Harrison's clashes on and off the battlefield have you one moment pressing your nose to the page so as not to miss a jot or tittle and the next recoiling in horror. Tolkien's Battle of Helm's Deep in The Two Towers (the closest genre analog I can think of to The Pastel City's hip-and-thigh slaughter in the Great Brown Waste) pales in comparison. These are interludes that spike your heart rate, speed your eyes across the page and keep you awake well into the wee hours.

Given that the novel is first in a series, this review deserves a short postscript. Although all of the Viriconium books and short stories have been collected in
a single volume, few of them would draw any except the most stalwart readers. Pretentious to the point of being impenetrable, they seem almost a repudiation of the idea that genre fiction should delight. Instead, seek out a used copy of The Pastel City from AbeBooks or alibris.

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