Viriconium Nights: Seven stories set in Viriconium

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)Viriconium Nights by M. John Harrison

I was in Viriconium once. I was a much younger woman then. What a place that is for lovers! The Locust Winter carpets its streets with broken insects; at the corners they sweep them into strange-smelling drifts which glow for the space of a morning like heaps of gold before they fade away.

Viriconium Nights is the last book in M. John Harrison’s VIRICONIUM epic. It’s a collection of these seven short stories set in and around the city of Viriconium:

  1. “The Lamia and Lord Cromis” — tegeus-Cromis, a dwarf, and a man named Dissolution Kahn travel to a poisonous bog to destroy a dangerous Lamia.
  2.  “Viriconium Knights” — Ignace Retz, a young swordsman and treasure seeker, discovers an old man who has a tapestry which shows Retz at different times in Viriconium’s history.
  3. “The Luck in the Head” — In the Artists’ Quarter, the poet Ardwick Crome has been having a recurring dream about a ceremony called “the Luck in the Head.” He wants these disturbing dreams to stop, so he goes looking for one of the women in the dream. (BTW, there’s a graphic novel based on this story.)
  4. “Strange Great Sins” — A man from the country goes to Viriconium, falls in love with the ballerina Vera Ghillera, and wastes away. This story looks at the city of Viriconium from the perspective of outsiders who know that those who go there either are, or will become, decadent and self-absorbed.
  5. “Lords of Misrule” — tegeus-Cromis visits an estate outside the city of Viriconium which is under threat of invasion and won’t survive if Viriconium won’t help.
  6. “The Dancer From the Dance” — The ballerina Vera Ghillera from “Strange Great Sins” visits Allman’s Heath where strange things are afoot.
  7. “A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium” — This final story, set in our world, explains that Viriconium is a real place and tells you exactly how to get there, in case you want to go. The doorway is a mirror in a bathroom in a café in England.

The stories in Viriconium Nights contain some of the characters we’ve met in the previous VIRICONIUM books (e.g., tegeus-Cromis, Ansel Verdigris, Audsley King, Paulinus Rack, Ashlyme) and include many allusions to recurring events and motifs: mechanical metal birds, tarot cards, locusts, the fish mask, big lizards, the Mari Lwyd, etc. Each story stands alone but focuses on the city of Viriconium and particularly the bohemian residents of the Artists’ Quarter. All of Viriconium is decaying, but this part of the city feels especially bleak, probably because it’s peopled with brooding artistic types whose desperation results in freakish hedonistic behavior.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThough there are recurring characters in the VIRICONIUM works, we never get to know any of them very well. The haunting, weird, incomprehensible city is the main character. M. John Harrison has explained that he didn’t want Viriconium to be “tamed” or “controlled,” so he has confused and disoriented the reader by making it impossible to understand what it would be like to live in his world: “I made that world increasingly shifting and complex. You can not learn its rules. More importantly, Viriconium is never the same place twice.” I think this is more successful in the last three parts of VIRICONIUM — the first novel, The Pastel City, is almost a traditional quest fantasy.

VIRICONIUM is one of those works that I feel like I should give 5 stars just because it’s original and M. John Harrison’s prose is brilliant. Harrison is a master of style and his writing is superior to most of what’s offered on the SFF shelves.

However, the truth is that though I recognize Harrison’s genius, I can’t say that I enjoyed every moment of VIRICONIUM, which may be a reflection on me more than on the work itself. Spending so much time in a city that’s unknowable and decaying resulted, for me, in an overwhelming feeling of disorientation and hopelessness. The characters and the plot, which feel like they are there only to support the role of the city, don’t make up for this. A month from now, I probably won’t remember any of the plots in Viriconium Nights. But I will remember Viriconium.

If you decide to read VIRICONIUM, I highly recommend the audio version produced by Neil Gaiman Presents. Simon Vance’s performance is excellent.

~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)By the time I reached this point in the sequence, I felt like Harrison’s goals in writing these stories were those of the musical composer, painter, or sculptor. Viriconium, in all of its mysterious, contradictory, grotesque, and dreamlike unreality is the canvas upon which Harrison can try different paints, angles, lighting, themes, and ideas. In this case, he uses short stories, which I found more interesting than The Floating Gods, and featured some of the characters of the previous books. In a sense I didn’t feel that he broke any new artistic ground with these stories necessarily, but they certainly shared the same positive qualities of the earlier books in the sequence.

~Stuart Starosta

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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