Susanna Clarke


Fantasy / Science Fiction


Date Reviewed:

May 2, 2022

iranesi received a massive amount of hype and accolades. For that amount of praise, I hoped to read true classic of science fiction and fantasy, something akin to Dune, Ender's Game, Hyperion or any other of a number of genuine SF / Fantasy classics. Piranesi is an entertaining read, but it isn't great. I think I am a victim of excessive expectations.

This list of prizes is listed on the inside cover of the paperback edition:

Finalist for the Hugo Award

Finalist for the Nebula Award

Finalist for the GoodReads Choice Award

Finalist for the L. A. Times Book Prize

Shortlisted for the Costa Book Award.

Piranesi is a solitary young man who lives in a vast building - the huge halls are apparently endless, stretching to infinity in all directions. Lining the walls of these corridors and rooms are niches. Most niches are occupied by carved marble statues. The statues come in many different styles, and depict all sorts of figures. Piranesi is schooled enough recognize many of these figures - minotaurs and warriors, creatures and statesmen, though Piranesi never identifies any of the statues by a proper name, instead, it is Lady Carrying the Beehive or The Faun. The vast passageways are unfurnished, other than the statues, they are empty, though sometimes the walls stand so tall that there are multiple levels of niches lined with statues. Birds fly through the rooms - Piranesi is schooled enough that he can identify the birds by species, such the albatross.

Some wings of the infinite building are permanently flooded with salt water - Piranesi survives by harvesting fish, seaweed and mollusks from these indoor seas. It rains inside these giant rooms, and so Piranesi has fresh water. Periodically the tides come rushing up various passages, but Piranesi has lived in this strange world long enough to have calculated detailed tide tables, and so he is not in danger of being caught by a surprise inundation. Sometimes the tide arrive in phase and build upon each other, flooding many rooms that normally are dry.

Piranesi keeps notebooks (he knows how to read and write) where he details journal entries, describing notable discoveries or speculations about how the world works. Piranesi knows that there have been as many as fifteen people who have lived, because he has found their bodies (mostly, he has just found skeletons). He treats these bones with reference, securing them from the sweep of the tides.

There is just one other living individual in Piranesi's world - the Other. Unlike Piranesi, who spends his entire life roaming the vast domain, the Other seems to periodically disappear. Even stranger, the Other is often neatly dressed in fresh clean clothes, and equipped with foods and tools that are no where to be found in the world. The Other is desperately searching for Great and Secret Knowledge. For example, the Other believes that hidden somewhere in the world are possibly the following abilities:

1) vanquishing Death and becoming immortal.

2) learning telepathy to know what other people are thinking

3) transforming oneself into eagles and flying thru the air.

4) transforming oneself into a fish and swimming the seas.

5) moving objects using just brain power.

6) snuffing out the sun and stars, and then reigniting them

7) dominating lesser individuals, and bending them to one's will.

Piranesi is not impressed by such knowledge. What use would the ability be to bend someone to your will when there is only himself and the Other in the world? To know what others are thinking, just ask them. Nevertheless, Piranesi tries to help the Other in his quest for lost secrets; after all, the Other is his only friend, and at various times he has gifted Piranesi with treasures such as clothing or food. Also, the Other has warned Piranesi that there might be a threatening sixteenth person in the world. Piranesi must avoid any strangers he spots prowling through the halls.

The novel gradually reveals the backstory of Piranesi and the Other and how they came to be in this strange world. The reader will learn why Piranesi can read and write, how he can recognize gulls and albatrosses. It is a nicely imagined story.

I vaguely recall, years ago, reading another novel about a mansion whose corridors stretched to infinity, with endless rooms. In that novel, the furniture was aggressive (coming alive and attacking the protagonists), and the indoor tides also came and went. Yet I cannot recall what the title of that book was, or who wrote it. The setting of Piranesi reminded me very much of that novel, but now I cannot find any mention of it with a few internet searches. If anyone reads this review knows what that book was, I would appreciate your contacting me a giving me the book title.