The knights who say ‘Neap’: Viriconium (1971-1984) by M. John Harrison


When the Young Queen Jane of Viriconium gives hero Lord tegeus-Cromis the Tenth Ring of Neap from her glittering fingers as proof of authorization for his quest, the signaling of Tolkien motif is established. When Cromis promptly loses the Tenth Ring of Neap on his battled-scarred trek, and continues without it, ending the tale with the Queen’s fingers glittering with only nine Rings of Neap, the subversion of Arthurian myth is solidified. The loss of the Ring of Neap is the loss of the escape, and a promise of things to come: an attack on the senselessness of fantasy, of the imaginary, of the romantic, of the things I loved. In my youth.

It becomes …the first infection of the human reality… (225)

Viriconium2The Viriconium omnibus is not a collection of stories to read, it is an argument to parse out. In The Pastel City (1971), the quest structure is erected, recognizeable but deliberately rickety and asbestos-ridden. An erosion of tradition. In A Storm of Wings (1980), that structure is overhauled with hallucinatory confabulations of story and character echoes. In Viriconium (1982) zooms in on the delirium of High and Low City life: its artists, its swindlers, its smalltime bullies. The collection then dissolves into Viriconium Nights (1984), a series of short fictions that swirl throughout the Viriconium landscape, closing the sequence while blasting open the fantasy genre.


I have read things like this, from before and after 1971, and while entertaining, to an extent, they have often felt [thin] [clumsy] [trying] [fake]. [wannabe]. (Peake excluded.) Dying worlds, crusty cities, subverted storytelling, with words selected for precision and surprise, but somehow managing neither. Harrison is the genuine article, a wordsmith. Here are some of my favorites… just the short, vague ones (I’ll leave the best for you to discover):

We waste our lives in half truths and nonsense. We waste them. (86)

…in a tetanus of anxiety and self-interest… (130)

Its stairways wound like a tedious argument… (145)

Echoes fled like bats. (157)

He filled the sitting room like a murder. (168)

…losing definition like a piece of wet soap. (235)

…more aware of a kind of slippage in the city’s perception of itself… (343)

…a city of worn-out enthusiasms… (396)

You can’t just fly there, of course. (450)

There a smell of lemons clung, as if some bitter dew had condensed on that doomed hull during its confused final voyage. It was an unearthly, chemical smell. The horses hated it. (189)

(Well, who doesn’t hate lemon pledge?)


It is a bewildering read with rabbit holes aplenty. The erudition, the language, the allusiveness is overwhelming for anyone, let alone readers raised on commercial pacing and sentimentality. But that’s exactly who it’s for, not to pull back the curtains, but to turn on the lights. Viriconium is meant to be grappled with. It is meant to awaken, to infect. It is meant for the reread shelf. Disillusionment can take the reader out of Viriconium, but it can’t take Viriconium out of the reader.





A few of us have been reading this together… er, in the way that digital reading buddies read things together, which is basically not at all. Here are some reviews:

Viriconium at BookPunks

The Pastel City at Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased 

The Pastel City at MarzAat


17 thoughts on “The knights who say ‘Neap’: Viriconium (1971-1984) by M. John Harrison

  1. Jesse says:

    I guess you read the omnibus edition. If not, you can ignore the following question. What did you think of how the stories from Viriconium Nights were spaced throughout the collection? For me they were the perfect interludes. The opening story of the duel to the person finding ‘reality’ in the last, I thought helped transition Viriconium through its three major phases. I even wondered if Harrison himself edited the omnibus, but could find no evidence. As I didn’t read the collection as a stand-alone, however, it’s possible such readers have a different experience.

    I really like your paragraph run-through of the four books. It captures something closer to the heart of Viriconium than I think my review does. I got caught up in worldbuilding, and how Harrison aimed to deconstruct the notion. But you’re right-er. 🙂 There is another layer there, a deconstruction, or at least a laying bare, of the larger ideal of epic fantasy, if not fantasy itself.

    I’ve yet to finish the Kefatahuchi (or however the hell you call it) sequence, but thus far one of its layers is the deconstruction of science fiction. I guess that makes Harrison that quiet, intelligent kid sitting the corner, deftly countering the teacher’s arguments… I wonder if his realist novels are as tight?

    Liked by 1 person

    • My edition had the short fiction clumped together at the end, which really bothered me. I would have preferred them interspersed throughout the collection because that’s how they felt topically and, as you said, they are better suited to support the transitions. Then again, Viriconium is all about losing balance, so perhaps tacking the short fiction on the end and removing the reader from chronology is the most Viriconium-y thing to do.

      By Storm of Wings and In Viriconium, I was so delirious and grasping at small wisps of things, I honestly had no idea how to describe the ‘plot.’ I’m really glad I read all three novels together, rather than space them out as I had originally planned, because that’s the only way I was able to actually define this work in my head. Understanding them separately is going to take more work. But, yeah, I really love his hazy worldbuilding and the way he constructs sentences.

      I stumbled upon an affordable copy of Parietal Games, a collection of Harrison’s criticism from New Worlds, etc, which includes a few essays about Harrison’s work by other critics. Your characterization of him as the quiet, contentious kid in the back of the classroom is spot on. His essays are so much fun to read, the collection has become a permanent fixture in my bedtime reading rotation. In the essays by other critics (and an interview with him) they talk a lot about his more recent works, including Climbers. Like you, I’m really interested in his nonSF work.


  2. I should read this again one day. I couldn’t get into it the first time.


    • Then I think you’re doin’ it right. These books aren’t necessarily the kind you can traditionally ‘get into’ so much as ‘dig into.’ Show up with your trowel and handbroom next time and approach it more like a specimen than a set of stories.


  3. Yes! Yes yes yeeeeees. At long last Megan speaks about Viriconium! Reading this all at the same time was really fun.I hope that happens again in 2016…oh wait, we’re reading The Exegesis and 12 novels together. FUCK YEAH.

    I absolutely loved when he lost that ring. It felt like such a big fuck you to the tropes of fantasy, it made me grin a lot.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I completely agree! I felt the same way when Severian lost his sword in BotNS. In fact, I find it interesting that those two very deconstructive works (Viriconium and BotNS) coincide in time with one another. I haven’t seen anything about whether Gene Wolfe was reading M John Harrison throughout the ’70s, but I wouldn’t doubt it if he saw some of those seeds planted in The Pastel City and ran off with them.

      And off we go to the Exegesis! Thank goodness we have a support group as we leave literary delirium for actual delirium.


      • nikki says:

        Reading Viriconium has made me even more interested in finally reading some Wolfe, that’s for damn sure.

        And I felt that way about the sword loss too. So excellent. Writers should slap this genre around more often.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I am planning a serious reread of Book of the New Sun this year. Probably in December.

          I’m starting to view Wolfe as the religious, right-wing version of what Harrison does. I also think Harrison did it first, regardless of the apparent time clash, because Pastel City was nearly a decade earlier AND he spent the ’70s preaching anti-genre stuff in New Worlds. Plus, I like Harrison’s style. So Harrison wins. (We’ll see if this assessment hold up in 12 months.)


  4. Enjoyed your thoughts on the books that weren’t Pastel City, since I still need to read those–it sounds like those are where Harrison really went wild and let his creativity go free. And, those quotes!


  5. Tomcat says:

    I really must re-read these books. I’ve read a mountain of SSF since I first read them, and I think I’d probably “get” them more now than I did back then…

    Hmmm.. but having said that, I don’t really like reading stuff in relation to a canon, because I find the idea of canons (or the homogeneity of the cultures/fandoms that create them) to be really problematic.

    Great, now I’m all conflicted…. 🙂

    *walks off ranting*


    • Ah, but this is in relation to canon in spite of canon. Surely that can be excused 😉

      And yeah, I think I’ll be rereading these in two or three years just to see how my perception changes after a few more years of genre and lit consumption.


  6. Widdershins says:

    Lemon pledge bat echoes – doesn’t get any better than that! Happy New Year for the day after tomorrow! 😀 … and thanks for all these wonderful reviews. I may not comment on all of ’em but I do read ’em!


  7. […] vehicle for something more, making it similar to the experience of reading The Book of the New Sun, Viriconium, and, more recently, Glorious Angels. Deep, patient reading is […]


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