John Crowley – Engine Summer

The SF Squeecast is stealing my money. At least by proxy. I don’t know whether it’s the format or the fact that Cat Valente, Lynn Thomas, and Seanan McGuire are awesome at describing their favorite things, but they always make me want to go out and Buy New Books. Catherynne M. Valente’s recommendations especially always resonate with me and it is her fault (again) that I picked up this John Crowley novel. It sounded much better when she talked about it, but I’m glad I read it, nonetheless.

engine summerENGINE SUMMER
by John Crowley

Published by: Gollancz, 2013 (1979)
ISBN: 0575082816
ebook: 256 pages

My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: Asleep? No. Awake. I was told to close my eyes.

In the drowsy tranquility of Little Belaire, the Truthful Speakers lead lives of peaceful self-sufficiency ignoring the depopulated wilderness beyond their narrow borders. It is a society untouched by pain or violence and the self-destroying ‘Angels’ of the past are barely remembered. But when Rush That Speaks leaves his home on a pilgrimage of self-enlightenment, he finds a landscape haunted by myths and memories. The overgrown ruins reflect a world outside that is stranger than his people ever dreamed…


This was possibly the stranges book I have ever read. Do not be fooled by its limited number of pages, if you go on this journey with Rush That Speaks, be prepared for a complex, complicated tale that, more often than not, will just not make sense to you. As a reader, I was thrown into a dialogue between an unknown person and the protagonist who is to tell his life story. Rush That Speaks has grown up in a warren called Little Belaire, where people live peacefully, separated into “strings” – each of which have different values and priorities. At this point, I was hoping to learn more about each of them, but Crowley leaves us (intentionally) in the dark. Rush meets a girl named Once a Day and slowly falls in love with her. When she leaves with a group called The List, he takes this chance to follow her and – on his journey – become a Saint, one who finds and returns things that have been lost, and tells stories.

John Crowley doesn’t give a shit if we know what’s going on. Personally, I enjoy when an author leaves me in the dark for a while and trusts me to figure out the context by myself. But in order to do that, I will require a certain amount of information, and John Crowley apparently also didn’t give much of a crap about that. Not knowing which part of Little Belaire’s strange mythology was important and which wasn’t, I found myself wracking my brain to make some sense of this story, to find the story arc that would connect all the weird things Rush That Speaks shows us. If there is a bond between everything we read about, it is simply Rush himself.

engine summer2His coming-of-age story leads him from Little Belaire to a family that lives apart from society, a man who lives in a tree house, and to the List – where humans live alongside giant cats and take every day as it comes. Undoubtedly, the ideas are intriguing and the way Crowley kept me guessing was fun, in a way. But for a book this short, it felt a lot like work. Because Rush’s culture was so strange to me and he kept speaking about myths I couldn’t connect in my mind, I never had a chance to grow close to him, and the tragic and heartbreaking things that happened to him didn’t touch me as much as they should have.

I’m completely on the fence about the language. I have heard it described as poetic and lyrical, beautiful and heartbreaking. Well… I can see where the poetic bit comes from. There were passages that – had they been surrounded by more context – would have been touching and beautiful. To me, a beautiful sentence is only really beautiful if it doesn’t just string words together in a nice fashion but if its content has meaning. I could randomly pick a dozen sentences from this novel that could be called poetic or lyrical but because they were so out of context or pertained to characters I didn’t care about, they were, ultimately, lost on me.

I am really not sure if I think the language was good and I just didn’t enjoy it (I won’t lie, this may have to do with me not being an English native speaker, maybe I just didn’t get it.) or if it really was just pretentious. But for that very reason – me not knowing – and because I can’t call the writing bad by any means, I will just shut up about this part.

The ending offers a twist that, while surprising and in an evil-reader-way satisfying, would have been much more impactful if I had had the time to care about the characters more. As negative as all that may sound, there is a melancholy that resonates throughout the book, a yearning for things lost, for knowledge and understanding, and despite my misgivings, I can’t deny that the book impressed me. All the little qualms I have are concerned with the shallow experience of reading for pleasure. This may not have been the most fun book ever but I can’t deny that it has made me think. It confronted me with new things as far as style and plot are concerned. Engine Summer made me broaden my horizon just a little bit and for that I will consider the experience a success.

THE GOOD: Keeps you guessing at what’s going on, a very atmospheric vision of a post-apocalyptic world.
THE BAD: Complicated narrative, difficult to follow, distand characters and fake mythology that got a little too much for my taste.
THE VERDICT: As science fiction goes, this was not a bad book. Plot- and characterwise, it may not have been my cup of tea, but I am more than willing to check out John Crowleys fantasy brick book Little, Big.

RATING: 6,5/10 – Quite good but not for everybody


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