There are certain books you want to take off the shelf couple of times a year for sheer reading pleasure. These books never get old and take you for a spin every time you read them. M. John Harrison’s epic fantasy — The Pastel City — is one such case. It’s a perfect example of the classic seventies $.75 mass-market paperback that you adore on rainy evenings.
What’s it about
The Pastel City is set in a distant future (in the city of Viriconium) and delineates the struggle of an Arthurian kingdom that has grown from the ashes of a high tech empire. This state fights against an army of brain eating androids led by a ruthless woman. Sword and sorcery is on the rise and ancient relics that cannot be controlled have been unearthed. The war threatens to destroy civilization.
Why it works
The pastel city succeeds largely due to brilliant use of diction and some incredible action. Use of archaic words for conversation and explosive colors instead of bland descriptive prose makes Harrison’s writing highly appealing and exotic. And it’s tough to think of another epic fantasy that brings so much ferocity and terror into its combat scenes. Even Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers seems pale by comparison.
The standard features of fantasy are all here — a beautiful and good-hearted queen under seize, a lonely poet warrior, a cranky dwarf, traitors, an evil queen, and weird entities. But Mr. Harrison works with a different template; he blurs the thin line between science fiction and fantasy. So we have terminator like creatures and scientists living in high towers.
What’s not so cool
This Pastel City can be categorized as a long story or a novella rather than a full length novel. The plot is epic in scope but the thin size of the book leaves you wanting for more. Certain situations and characters lack details; at times, things seem a little too rushed. In this context it can be mentioned that the The Pastel city is a preamble to the greater things that come in the sequels — but it is a fun ride and can be read on its own. It reminds you of masterpieces like Jack Vance’s Tales of the Dying Earth, which evokes the feeling of stagnation and hopelessness.
Do you know
The Pastel city is the first volume of the series Viriconium. The sequels to the novel are A Storm of Wings (volume 2) and The Floating Gods (volume 3). There is also a collection of short stories called Viriconium Nights. A single volume edition is available (fantasy masterworks edition) where you can find all the Viriconium stories and novels.
The Pastel city and this series in general, is tight and well paced fantasy worth your reading effort.