A Storm of Wings: Strange, outlandish, blurry

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsM. John Harrison Viriconium 1. The Pastel City (1971) 2. A Storm of Wings (1980) 3. The Floating Gods (1982) In Viriconium 4. Viriconium Nights (1984)A Storm of Wings by M. John Harrison

A Storm of Wings is the second part of M. John Harrison’s VIRICONIUM sequence. Viriconium has been at peace for eighty years after the threat from the north was eliminated, but now there are new threats to the city. Something has detached from the moon and fallen to earth. A huge insect head has been discovered in one of the towns of the Reborn. The Reborn are starting to go mad. Also, a new rapidly growing cult is teaching that there is no objective reality. Are the strange events linked with the cult’s nihilistic philosophy? And what will this do to Viriconium’s peace? Tomb the dwarf and Cellur the Birdlord, whom we met in The Pastel City, set out to discover the truth.

A Storm of Wings was published in 1980 — nine years after The Pastel City — and M. John Harrison’s writing style has evolved. In some ways it’s better — characterization is deeper and the imagery is more evocative. This world feels fragile and moribund and the reader gets the sense that, as the cult proclaims, it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s just a warped perception. Or perhaps Viriconium is slipping from reality into a dream. Or into a different reality altogether. The story is strange, outlandish, and blurry.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsI like weird tales, but I had trouble with A Storm of Wings because the pace was so sluggish. M. John Harrison spends so much of his effort building an eerie atmosphere and a dreamy mood and not enough time with real action. The atmosphere is successful but that wasn’t enough to completely satisfy me because very little actually happens in this story. I often wished that Harrison would quit with the mood and move onto the story.

However, I do love the city of Viriconium — a city whose palace, which is built to mathematical precision and carved with strange geometries, lies at the end of a road called the Proton Circuit. A city that must have been absorbed with the highest levels of math and science until it fell. A city that no longer remembers its former glory. I can’t wait to find out more about Viriconium in the next book.

I’m still listening to the audiobook version of the VIRICONIUM omnibus. Thanks to narrator Simon Vance, this is an excellent format for this epic.

~Kat Hooper

M. John Harrison Viriconium 1. The Pastel City (1971) 2. A Storm of Wings (1980) 3. The Floating Gods (1982) In Viriconium 4. Viriconium Nights (1984)A Storm of Wings was by far the best book in the sequence for me. In fact, I only knew about this book because it was selected by David Pringle for his Modern Fantasy: The Best 100 Novels. The opening paragraphs set an unmistakable tone:

In this time, the Time of the Locust, when we have nothing to ourselves but the hollowness within us, in the Time of Bone, when we have nothing to do but wait, nothing human moves here. Nothing human has moved here for eighty years. Fire, were it brought here, would be pale and dim, hard to kindle. Passion would fade here on a whisper. Something in the tower’s fall has poisoned the air here, and drained the landscape of its power. White and sickly and infinitely slow, the hemlock creeps out of the water to run sad rubbery fingers over the rubbish in the fallen rooms. The collapse of the tower seems complete, the defeat of artifice accomplished. 

But the story is far more than a moribund description of decay and despair, though there is plenty of that. Something insectile and alien has detached itself from the moon and descended to the Earth, causing various strange and grotesque happenings in the city of Viriconium. The Reborn Men are a group of ancient people revived from death, living in waking dreams, trapped between the present and vague memories of their past lives. Then there is Tomb the Dwarf, a tough and surly character who reminds himself he is “a dwarf and not a philosopher.” The leader of the group (if there is such a designation) would be Galen Hornwrack, another older mercenary tasked with finding out what all the ill portents imply. Their investigations take them through a city inundated with strange and disturbing images, severed locust heads, all manner of bizarre events, and it all forms a fairly disturbing malaise of weirdness, but the writing is so crisp, colorful, outlandish, and florid that it kept me in a fascinated trance as I listened. In fact, just a few days after finishing the series, I cannot really remember any specific events, only the striking images and melancholy moods that the story evokes. It’s interesting that what I liked about the book was exactly what Kat didn’t like. It is much closer to listening to Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” than any other metaphor I can think of. If I were to listen to any of the VIRICONIUM stories again, it would be this one.

~Stuart Starosta

Published in 1980. IN THE WASTELANDS OF A FUTURE WORLD, THE PASTEL CITY STRUGGLES IN THE GRIP OF THE SIGN OF THE LOCUST… Viriconium: The Pastel City was the last bastion of the civilized world where Queen Methvet Nian ruled supreme. Now she watched, helpless, as the Time of the Locust became a monstrous reality, turning the inhabitants into hideous, mindless insects. Cellur, the Bird Lord, emerged from his underground exile, the first to respond to the call. Soon he was joined by Tomb, the Iron Dwarf, and the first of the Reborn Men, Alstath Fulthor. They journeyed to the desolate plains of the North in search of the evil’s sources, only to encounter a paralysing menace that threatened to destroy their very minds… A STORM OF WINGS is the new novel in the ‘Viriconium’ sequence – a brilliant tour-de-force of fantasy fiction by one of the most strikingly original talents on the contemporary scene.

Viriconium — (1971-1984) The third book, The Floating Gods, was also released as In Viriconium. Publisher: In the distant future, a medieval system rises from the ruins of a technology that destroyed itself. Armored knights ride their horses across dunes of rust, battling for the honor of the Queen. But the knights find more to menace them than mere swords and lances. A brave quest leads them face to face with the awesome power of a complex, lethal technology that has been erased from the face of the Earth — but lives on, underground.

M. John Harrison Viriconium 1. The Pastel City (1971) 2. A Storm of Wings (1980) 3. The Floating Gods (1982) In Viriconium 4. Viriconium Nights (1984)M. John Harrison Viriconium 1. The Pastel City (1971) 2. A Storm of Wings (1980) 3. The Floating Gods (1982) In Viriconium 4. Viriconium Nights (1984)M. John Harrison Viriconium 1. The Pastel City (1971) 2. A Storm of Wings (1980) 3. The Floating Gods (1982) In Viriconium 4. Viriconium Nights (1984)M. John Harrison Viriconium 1. The Pastel City (1971) 2. A Storm of Wings (1980) 3. The Floating Gods (1982) In Viriconium 4. Viriconium Nights (1984)

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff from March 2015 to November 2018, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he lived in Tokyo, Japan for about 15 years before moving to London in 2017 with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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  1. sandy ferber /

    Hmmm, I don’t recall Pringle selecting this one in his “Best 100” book. “The Centauri Device,” yes, but not this one. Is “The Centauri Device” part of this series, perhaps?

  2. sandy ferber /

    Oh, wait a second…I get it now, Stuart. You meant Pringle’s “100 Best Modern Fantasy Novels” volume, not sci-fi. Now I follow….

  3. Thanks, Sandy, you spotted that one quickly! I actually couldn’t remember which list it appeared in, as it is one of those books that lingers in the boundaries of SF and fantasy.

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