Mervyn Peake – Titus Groan

It’s taken me long enough to pick up this classic fantasy book and explore the vast hallways of Castle Gormenghast. I couldn’t tell you why I waited so long to read this. The language is so up my alley, I ended up underlining half the book. Who’d have thought there’s a word for the amount that’s missing to fill a container (it’s “ullage”)? But discovering words was only a small part of the pleasure I got from reading this.

titus groanTITUS GROAN
by Mervyn Peake

Published by: Vintage Classics, 1998 (1946)
Paperback: 477 pages
Series: Gormenghast #1
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architecturial quality were it possible to have ingnored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls.

Mervyn Peake’s gothic masterpiece, the Gormenghast trilogy, begins with the superlative Titus Groan, a darkly humorous, stunningly complex tale of the first two years in the life of the heir to an ancient, rambling castle. The Gormenghast royal family, the castle’s decidedly eccentric staff, and the peasant artisans living around the dreary, crumbling structure make up the cast of characters in this engrossing story.
Peake has been compared to Dickens, Tolkien, and Peacock, but Titus Groan is truly unique. Unforgettable characters with names like Steerpike and Prunesquallor make their way through an architecturally stifling world, with lots of dark corners around to dampen any whimsy that might arise. This true classic is a feast of words unlike anything else in the world of fantasy. Those who explore Gormenghast castle will be richly rewarded.

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Every character in this book is nuts! Not knowing what I was getting into, I expected some kind of protagonist to hold on to, some sensible soul wandering the crazy halls of Gormenghast with me. Neither did I find a protagonist nor anyone sane – but that was just as it should be.

Mervyn Peake takes his time introducing Gormenghast and its inhabitants. This old castle, seemingly cut off from the outside world, leads a life of its own. Inhabited by the Earl of Groan, his family, and a slew of servants, Gormenghast is elevated from a stoney building to a hive of pure crazy. Every chapter offers a glimpse into a new part of the castle, and shows it through the eyes of a different character. Only after everybody has been introduced do we return to them in other chapters, and by that time, their mannerisms, dialogue, and look has grown so familiar that you feel like you’re part of them. Soon I realised that this story is unlike any I’d read before. It’s hard to speak of plot when most of the fun comes from simply watching these deranged beings be themselves and when most of the writing is descriptions, either of the surroundings or of the characters themselves. Whether it’s Lady Gormenghast – the ultimate crazy cat lady – or cunning Steerpike, no matter if you follow Fuchsia and Nannie Slagg or the Twins, you will find that all of them are in serious need of a psychiatrist… sadly, even the castle’s Doctor Prunesquallor seems muddled at best.

So if this is not a traditional story, why is it so intriguing? Oh, for so many reasons. The language, the names, the characters, the castle itself, its traditions, the intrigue… I can’t pick just one.

The language is breathtaking. I already mentioned that I learned a bunch of new words but even without that added bonus, it’s just immensely enjoyable to read Peake’s long, beautiful sentences. For a book consisting mostly of description, it’s important that the description is somehow interesting. Mervyn Peake creates vivid images of Castle Gormenghast, not only – but also – because he uses the perfect words to make every room and person come to life. Sure, he takes his sweet time describing everything, but what the reader gets out of this is a fully-formed image, almost like a movie in your head.

swelterAnother part I absolutely loved was Peake’s original way of naming his characters. Names are important, names have meaning and, in a lot of fantasy literature, power. In this case, every name fits its owner so perfectly that it hurts. Flay – scrawny, creaky, sickly-looking – or Swelter – obese, sweaty, loud – Doctor Prunesquallor (Fuchsia calls him Prune, Lady Gormenghast calls him Squallor, and that says as much about them as it does about him)… I could go on. The names fit the personalities, or maybe the characters were formed by their names? Either way, the language made for a melodious read, even if it was just in my head. (Come to think of it, I must look if there’s a good audiobook version of this.)

So what’s this collection of crazy characters up to all the time, you ask. Castle Gormenghast is ruled by its traditions. With the birth of young Titus, the family line is secure but the young heir also requires a lot of traditional celebrations and rites that must be done exactly as they were always done. These ceremonies are as strange as they are funny. In fact, after a few chapters, I found the entire book quite hilarious, in a dark, creepy kind of way. It doesn’t take long for a character to do something and for me to go “oh, that’s so typically them”. After a while, you stop questioning the sense or purpose of these celebrations. They don’t have to make sense, they just have to be done by the book.

Titus Groan would have been excellent if it were just about following the characters around the castle, but there is more to it than that. Young kitchenboy Steerpike wants to get to the top and he is willing to do whatever it takes to reach his goal. His schemes are ruthless, but I followed them with interest nonetheless. I could also tell you long stories about the chapters involving him and the twins – probably the two dumbest people in the entire castle. Flay and Swelter have their own feud going on that keeps readers on their toes, and Fuchsia (one of the saner people) is just a young girl trying to find her place in the world. If I’ve scared you off with my ramblings, let me assure you – there is a plot. It’s just not the most important aspect of the book.

All characters, with their varying degrees of insanity, grew on me in a way. I couldn’t say that I gained more pleasure from reading about either of them because they are all unique. I did have a particular dislike for Swelter but reading about him was just as much fun as the rest of the cast.

While the castle seems to be self-sustaining and doesn’t interact with the wider world, there are people living just outside the castle walls. One of them, Keda, was quite interesting, if only because she seems slightly less crazy than the rest. For a while, at least. But she also made my literary spidey-sense tingle, in that I think her actions will have greater repercussions on the larger story. I may be wrong, but even so, Breda was fascinating in a less creepy way than, say, Steerpike.

If this sort-of-review lacks focus, that’s because whenever I think of this book, a billion thoughts come to my mind, none of them organised. It was an explosion of the weird, a challenging read that is truly unique. With its atmospheric setting, its vibrant cast, and their strange motivations, you have everything for a firework of the awesome. I read this on a tropical beach (so the setting couldn’t have been less fitting) but I still get chills when I think of Steerpike first following Flay through the stone corridors.

It took me a long time to finish reading this book, mainly because the language was so challenging, but in the end, every slowly-devoured page was worth it. I will wait for a week off work before I dive into the second book, Gormenghast, because this is the kind of story you want to savor. It’s not a book to read on train rides to work. I understand why this is a classic of fantasy literature, despite its complete and utter lack of actual magic.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Excellent!

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China Miéville – Un Lun Dun

I got interested in China Miéville first, not because of his fiction, but because of his public speaking. Interviews or panels – whatever he said fascinated me and made me want to get to know him as an author. When Perdido Street Station blew me away, I knew I wouldn’t stop there. I picked Un Lun Dun next because I wanted to see how somebody as wordy as Miéville would write a novel for young adults. He pulled it off beautifully – then again, I don’t know what else I expected.

un lun dunUN LUN DUN
by China Miéville

Published: Pan Books, 2011 (2007)
ISBN: 0330536680
Paperback: 521 pages
Standalone

My rating: 8/10

First sentence: In an unremarkable room, in a nondescript building, a man sat working on very non-nondescript theories.

Stumbling through a secret entrance, Zanna and Deeba enter the strange wonderland of UnLondon. here all the lost and broken things of London end up, and some of its people, too – including Brokkenbroll, boss of the broken umbrellas, and Hemi the half-ghost boy.
But the two girls have arrived at a dangerous time. UnLondon is a place where worlds are alive, where a jungle lurks behind the door of an ordinary house, where carnivorous giraffes stalk the streets… and a sinister cloud called Smog is bent on destruction. It’s a frightened city in need of a hero…

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Zanna and Deeba are best friends so it is not unusual that they stumble into a huge adventure together. As it becomes clear that Zanna is the Chosen One and the prophecies say she will save UnLondon from the threatening Smog, this book becomes more than just a wanky portal fantasy. Any girl who has ever been the designatet ugly and/or fat friend will easily sympathise with Deeba. She is a loyal friend who tries to be accepting of her friend’s important role. But constantly standing on the sidelines is no fun. Which is why I rooted for her from the word go.

What makes this book readable for younger people is that the language is tuned down quite a bit. There are still big and sometimes difficult words but their meaning is usually clear from the context or explained in the text. That is a huge bonus right there, because that is how children learn new words. Or if they’re as swept up in the adventure as I was, they’ll probably just read over them. Either way, the big words do not distract from the flow of the story.

un lun dun binjaChina Miéville must have a vast imagination. The things he came up with in this book, the creatures and people that live in the abcity, range from hilariously original to absolutely bonkers. There are binja (bins that are ninjas), smombies, and unbrellas. UnLondon is what happens when all the trash and things people throw away in London congregates and creates an entirely new city and culture. Any moil – which is anything mildly obsolete in London – helps make up the stuff UnLondon is made off and there is something fun and new to discover on every page. I also would never have exptected to grow quite so fond of an empty milk carton. But yeah, that little thing totally grew on me.

quotes grey“My dad hates umbrellas,” said Deeba, swinging her own. “When it rains he always says the same thing. ‘I do not believe the presence of moisture in the air is sufficient reason to overturn society’s usual sensible taboo against wielding spiked clubs at eye level.'”

The themes explored and issues raised are fairly obvious but I loved how Miéville managed to show the complexities of politics in a manner that every child can understand. People who seem to be good aren’t always really good. But they’re not automatically bad either. Some are being lied to, some are doing the lying, others are double-crossing or plain greedy. By putting all of this into the context of the UnLondon society with an obvious and easy-to-identify main antagonist, I believe this shows kids that a little conviction can go a long way. And that not everything is necessarily as it first seems.

That said, Miéville takes on tropes of fantasy books and turns them on their head. We learn how the adventure is supposed to go, throw caution and rules into the wind, and do it our own way. To which I can only say: This is awesome!

Of course, un lun dun illustration china mievilleUnLondon is not only made of cool stuff. There are dangers galore which make for great action scenes. But there at least as many great characters with their own lives and back stories that offer us some moments of rest and good old fun. Because this is a YA book, we are introduced to them quickly and don’t necessarily spend a lot of time seeing their character development but they are all sympathetic and lovable. Some of them even get their own illustrations, all of which I found wonderful and adding to the atmosphere of the abcity. Deeba is an engaging and clever heroine-by-accident who makes mistakes but learns from them, as all good rolemodels should. I find myself wanting to read about all the other abcities as well. After all, there is Parisn’t, Lost Angeles, and – my personal favorite – Sans Francisco.

THE GOOD: A fantastic, fun world to discover by following great characters. Quick, short chapters, a fast-moving plot, language that is easy enough for children to read but not talking down to them.
THE BAD: As an adult, I would have liked more depth – basically I would have read the grown-up version of this. But this is a YA book and as such it was superbly done.
BONUS: Curdle, the milk carton.
THE VERDICT: Highly recommended, clever fiction for young people that raises issues without lecturing, wraps them into an adventure and makes the imagination soar.

RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

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Review: China Miéville – Perdido Street Station

HOW did I wait this long to discover China Miéville? Can anybody tell me why of all the recommendations I’ve been given, none ever enticed me enough to pick up this book? Well, I found my way in the end, and I have a lot more Miéville to discover.  This was an odyssey of a book and I admit, I dragged it out a lot, simply because I wasn’t quite ready to leave that world yet.

China Miéville - Perdido Street Station

PERDIDO STREET STATION
by China Miéville

Published by: Pan Macmillan, 2011 (2000)
ISBN: 9780330534239
Paperback: 880
Series: New Crobuzon #1

My rating: 9/10

First sentence: Veldt to scrub to fields to farms to these first tumbling houses that rise from the earth.

The metropolis of New Crobuzon sprawls at the centre of its own bewildering world. Humans and mutants and arcane races throng the gloom beneath its chimneys, where the rivers are sluggish with unnatural effluent, and factories and foundries pound into the night. For more than a thousand years, the parliament and its brutal militia have ruled over a vast array of workers and artists, spies, magicians, junkies and whores.

Now a stranger has come, with a pocketful of gold and an impossible demand, and inadvertently something unthinkable is released. As the city becomes gripped by an alien terror, the fate of millions depends on a clutch of outcasts on the run from lawmakers and crimelords alike. The urban nightscape becomes a hunting ground. Battles rage in the shadows of bizarre buildings. And a reckoning is due at the city’s heart, under the vast chaotic vaults of Perdido Street Station.

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I find myself in an exceedingly difficult situation. Trying to review this book without giving too much away but still being able to mention all the awesome things and ideas, seems unfeasible. Perdido Street Station is a trip into the teeming, filthy city of New Crobuzon. A place full of drugs and crime and slums and starving artists and even starving scientists. Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin is one such and the project of his life – building a Crisis engine – is going nowhere. When a stranger turns up with a seemingly impossible request, Isaac finds a new project to persue. But then, as things do in fiction, everything goes wrong and shit just won’t stop hitting the fan.

perdido 2

When China Miéville eases his readers into this word. the plot moves slowly, and he takes his time showing us around the city of New Crobuzon. But don’t worry. This is not just a tour around the city where we’re told that on our right hand side, we can see this species and on the left we see that species. But honestly, I wouldn’t have minded if that’s all it was. There are so many things to discover in New Crobuzon and while I think I got a general feel for the city, I haven’t seen nearly enough. We get some great insight into the khepri – people with human bodies but a bug as a head – as well as the garuda – winged humanoids with a bird’s head. But there is so much more. I could gush and gush about the many ideas but that would take away the fun of discovering them for yourself. And you should.

One idea in particular that caught my interest was the Remade, criminals who have metal or animal body parts attached to them to represent their crimes. How awesome is that! I also loved that every idea gets its proper time to be explored. As weird as it sounds, having just finished a book of 900 pages, I could have read about the Remade or the khepri, the vodyanoi, the currupt politicians, the drug lords and the criminal masterminds, for another 1000 pages.

The longer I read, the more I got the feeling that the author just put a whole lot of ideas into a pot, stirred, and out came an incredible city, densely populated by wonders upon wonders. As if that weren’t enough, Miéville also tells a gripping and terrifying story. The path of this 900-page-book is littered with plot-twists, ideas upon ideas, and not least, great writing. He had me fooled more than once and until it was over, I wasn’t sure how exactly this story would end.

China Miéville has his narrative down to perfection. And to add the cherry on top, I loved the writing style. It is flowery and (I think that goes without saying) vivid in detail but never, ever, boring. He switches perspectives frequently, showing us different sides of the same story, letting us enter the minds of several characters.

I understand why every single of his books is nominated for numerous awards and why people are so impressed with him. A word of caution is necessary, however, because I believe the style can very much be hit and miss. Before you buy this, read the first chapter to make sure you like it. If you do, you’re in for an epic adventure. China Miéville proves that fantasy does not have to be tropes and traditions only, that his imagination is endless and his skill phenomenal.

THE GOOD: If I start here, I’ll never stop. Characters, plot, style, monsters, world building…
THE BAD: It’s hard to find fault with this. If I have to pick something, I’d say the last third could have been shortened. Maybe.
THE VERDICT: An excellent book full of original ideas, great writing, and a well thought-out, fascinating city.

RATING: 9/10 Nearly perfect

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The Bas Lag Cycle:

  1. Perdido Street Station
  2. The Scar
  3. The Iron Council