Book Review: The Pastel City by M. John Harrison

I recently got a copy of the collected Viriconium works, M. John Harrison’s acclaimed “fantasy” series, and just read the first book in the sequence, The Pastel City. Warning: slight spoilers follow.

Far in the future, people live amongst the wreckage of advanced civilizations, surrounded by technology they don’t understand. When invaders from the north threaten Viriconium, the titular Pastel City, tegus-Cromis must reassemble his old crew of heroes, save the city, and face a strange race newly awakened from Earth’s past.

Harrison originally imagined his Viriconium series to be a reaction against some of the more popular fantasy at the time, like Tolkien’s works. This is more obvious in the later books, but there’s still traces of that here, despite the cliché plot. tegus-Cromis, is an older, jaded man who doesn’t even stick around for the final battle. The dwarf character isn’t a member of a separate race but is an actual dwarf like Tyrion from A Song of Ice and Fire. And those expecting intricate world-building will end up disappointed. Although it’s not outright contradictory, like in the later Viriconium works, Harrison’s far future fantasy has a murky history, murky geography, and murky, well, everything.

Despite being his second published novel, Harrison’s prose pyrotechnics are on full display here. The writing is stunning, ornate and dense with metaphor. Honestly, most of the time it felt like I continued reading more for the sheer beauty of the language than for the plot or for the characters (who are, for the most part, puddle-deep)

It’s a decent book, one that definitely revealed Harrison’s potential back when it was first published, but next to the later Viriconium books, it seems slight and uneven. That said, it’s still worth reading, especially for the way the later books riff on the characters and themes presented here.

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