FORGOTTEN BOOK: THE PASTEL CITY by M. John Harrison, 1971
This is the 130th in my series of Forgotten Books.
There was a time in the late 60’s and early 70’s when I read virtually every fantasy I could lay my hands on. And there were not that many. But Tolkien, Eddison, Burroughs, Howard and Moorcock had whetted my appetite for the fantasy novel. So when things like Leiber’s Gray Mouser began to appear, I was ecstatic.
One that I read back in the day which was so different from every other fantasy was M. John Harrison’s The Pastel City. This was a fantasy novel so radically different from the others (though there was a touch of the language of Eddison in there). I will state that at this time I had not yet read Mervyn Peake, Clark Ashton Smith or William Hope Hodgson. I was young, enthusiastic but not yet well read.
Harrison wrote like CAS doing a high fantasy in a world that might be Hodgson or Peake or his own. The story was about the tale and not so much about the action. The world here may be our Earth. Might not be. It is very hard to tell but it does not matter. Look at the first few paragraphs of this piece:
Some seventeen notable empires rose in the Middle Period of Earth. These were the Afternoon Cultures. All but one are unimportant to this narrative, and there is little need to speak of them save to say that none of them lasted for less than a millennium, none for more than ten; that each extracted such secrets and obtained such comforts as its nature (and the nature of the universe) enabled it to find; and that each fell back from the universe in confusion, dwindled, and died.
The last of them left its name written in the stars, but no one who came later could read it. More important, perhaps, it built enduringly despite its failing strength – leaving certain technologies that, for good or ill, retained their properties of operation for well over a thousand years. And more important still, it was the last of the Afternoon cultures, and was followed by Evening, and by Viriconium.
This is not really what I expect from a high fantasy novel which is how this was marketed. It might even be a very far future science fiction novel, since the afternoon Cultures did leave behind some residue. Knights fight on horseback with swords and pikes and Baans (a type of taser/blaster). There are airships, but precious few. There are energy cannons but again very few. These are used sparingly because the art of repair does not exist nor are there materials.
Our hero is a Methven knight, Lord tegeus-Cromis is retired to his nameless tower and fancies himself a poet rather than a swordsman. But evil forces from the North are coming to unseat the young Queen Jane who at 17 has inherited her father’s kingdom and is terrified of the responsibility. Cromis rallies his former partners Birkin Grif, Theomeris Glyn, and Tomb the Dwarf and they go to try and save the army of the Queen. Along the way, Cromis is approached/stalked by a great metal vulture which delivers him a cryptic message telling him to forgo the mission he is on and to seek out Cellur, someone he has never let or even heard of and to beware of the getite chemosit, which means nothing to Cromis.
The language is florid, beautiful and dense. This is not a book for fast consumption, it is for reveling in the beauty of language and story. There are epic battles as well as small ones. There is beauty and mystery and oddness. I do not think it can recommend this book too highly.
The internet sources have plenty of copies out there. This individual title has been reprinted multiple times. But I would recommend the 2005 Bantam omnibus entitled Viriconium which contains this novel as well as three other volumes, the novel A Storm of Wings as well as the two collections Viriconium Nights and In Viriconium for the low price of $16.
Series organizer Patti Abbott hosts more Friday Forgotten Book reviews at her own blog, and posts a complete list of participating blogs.