The Floating Gods (aka In Viriconium in the UK) by M. John Harrison
In this third volume of the VIRICONIUM omnibus, we visit the old artists’ quarter of Viriconium — a lazy decaying place where gardens bloom and the smell of black currant gin exudes from the taverns where the increasingly lackadaisical citizens used to sit and talk about art and philosophy. This part of the city used to be vibrant and innovative, but it has been deteriorating as a psychological plague has been creeping in from the high city. The artists’ patrons, infected by this plague of mediocrity, have become dreamy and only want to purchase uninspired sentimental watercolor landscapes. And all they want to talk about is the debauched antics of the Barley Brothers, a couple of twins who act like buffoons but are rumored to be demi-gods.
Ashlyme is a renowned artist whose cruel portraits are known for their ability to capture and emphasize his subjects’ unflattering personality traits. He’s concerned about Audsley King, another famous painter who is succumbing to the plague. With the help of his scientifically-minded friend and a cruel dwarf who calls himself the Grand Cairo, Ashlyme plans to transport Audsley to a part of the city where the plague has not yet reached, thinking that she may recover. Their plans go awry and end up like an episode of The Three Stooges.
The Floating Gods (aka In Viriconium) is funny, witty, and brilliantly written with sharp humorous insights into disagreeable human behavior. As the plague crept closer, I could feel the beloved city of Viriconium decaying — its fountains drying up and its gardens becoming unkempt and shabby. Like the previous book, A Storm of Wings, The Floating Gods is intensely atmospheric. This is a better book, though, because the atmosphere is balanced by humor and plot. This is my favorite VIRICONIUM book so far. Now I’m moving on to the last part, a collection of stories called Viriconium Nights.
I’m still listening to the wonderful audiobook version of the entire VIRICONIUM saga which is produced by Neil Gaiman Presents and narrated by Simon Vance.
The Floating Gods is the third book in the sequence, and in it Viriconium is beset by a mysterious plague that affects the artists’ quarter and drains their vitality and hope. As artist Audsley King slowly dies from the plague, her portrait artist friend Ashlyme tries to save her from this psychological malaise that seems to be taking over the city. This story abandons the sword-and-sorcery setting of the first two books in favor of a much grittier urban setting like an alternative London. It is a semi-comic, semi-tragic story of artists struggling against both the madness of their patrons and the strange loss of vitality that the plague brings. It is very much a metaphor for the struggle inherent in the artistic process, and being one of the most unartistic persons I know, I found it hard to care much about their travails. This book was Kat’s favorite among the sequence, mainly for its coherent storyline, humor, and evocative writing. For my part, I found my attention drifting fairly quickly, and can now recall almost nothing of the book’s events, much like a strange dream that fades upon waking.
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.