The Pastel City


M John Harrison


Fantasy / Science Fiction


Date Reviewed:

February 3rd, 2006

o not be put off by the horrible cover on The Pastel City - this really is a good book! (Geez, is that a professional cover? An amateur like me could produce a cover like that!) The copyright on this excellent book is 1972, so I am surprised I have not heard of Harrison until relatively recently - perhaps he has only been published in England until now? The Pastel City is the first of three books in a loosely knit trilogy called Viriconium - all three have now been collected into one omnibus volume called Viriconium.

The Pastel City is not very long, only 158 pages in this old edition that I read. If it had been longer, I might have awarded it 5 stars, but it ends too abruptly. This book reminds a lot of Jack Vance's classic Dying Earth stories. Like Vance's work, The Pastel City is set in the distant future, when the sun is dimming and the glory eras have come and gone. In Harrison's work, the high point of humanity were the Afternoon Cultures, and it is clear that the remaining humans are well into evening. Wonderous works remain - such as flying airships or windows that act as screens to see distant events, but no one knows how to build or maintain this remnant technology.

The story begins with Lord tegeus-Cromis, a heroic warrior who once was a member of a mighty fighting group who called themselves the Methven while they defended Viriconium from the Northern raiders. Now tegeus-Cromis has retired to an isolated tower outside of Viriconium, where he writes poetry surrounded by the trophies of his earlier career. Queen Moidart has gathered an army of Northmen, and now threatens to take the city. Unfortunately, she has also unearth Afternoon Culture weapons that make her attack invincible. tegeus-Cromis goes to the city to offer what aid he can to Viriconium's defenses.

The use of words by Harrison remind me a lot of the writing of Jack Vance, and maybe also of Gene Wolfe, who wrote his own classic novels of the distant future. The descriptions are exotic, the words are baroque, the people and events are extravagant and imaginative. This was a fun book to read; an artist would find plenty of wonderful scenes to illustrate (just don't hire the guy who did the cover of this edition!).

The ruling Queen of Viriconium gives Lord tegeus-Cromis one of her Ruling rings as a sign that he is to command her armies against the Northerners. tegeus-Cromis takes his Nameless sword and journeys to the north to join her army. Along the way a giant bird, a lammergayer, lands near his camp and delivers this message:

"tegeus-Cromis of Viriconium, which I take to be yourself, since you broadly tally with the description given, should go at once to the tower of Cellur." Here, it flexed its cruel claws on the cold grey stone, cocked its head, ruffled its feathers. "Which he will find on the Girvan Bay in the South, a little East of Lendalfoot. Further--"

Cromis felt unreal: the mist curled, the lammergayer spoke, and he was fascinated. On Cruachan Ridge he might have been out of Time, lost: but was much concerned with the essential nature of things and he kept his sword raised. He would have queried the bird further, but it went on:

"Further, he is advised to let nothing hinder that journey, however pressing it may seem: for things hang in a fine balance, and more is at stake the fate of a minor empire."

"This comes from Cellur of Girvan. That is the end of the message."

tegeus-Cromis choses to ignore the message from Cellur, and instead he rides to the army of Viriconium. The Pastel City is a quick, enjoyable read. Harrison has a marvelous descriptive flair to his writing. I will have to find the subsequent books he wrote in this series.