Wilson & Alroy on High Fantasy Novels  

Mervyn Peake

Mervyn Peake is a singular presence on this site, as his Gormenghast trilogy isn't fantasy at all: no magicians, no dwarves, no supernatural element whatsoever. However, it's easy to see why his writing was republished in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, because his dour castles, gargoyle-like menagerie of maladjusted characters, and improbably dramatic events are miles from everyday fiction... Dickens taken to extremes. Peake was involved in a wide variety of artistic pursuits, from poems to plays to drawings, but his novels chronicling the development of Titus Groan are his best remembered achievement. (DBW)

Titus Groan (1946)
- Bizarre, boring, and belabored, this 500 page monster is an obsessive portrayal of a timeless, enormous, sprawling castle and its cast of unpleasant and endlessly eccentric inhabitants. From the shell-shocked Earl of Gormenghast to the manipulative but basically unimpressive teenage villain Steerpike, there isn't one truly admirable character to be found, although some of them are pitiable instead of grotesque. Peake's disconnected subplots unfold glacially, the assorted conflicts seem trivial, the characters just seem to spin their gears after being introduced, and his creepy little world seems to float in space. He also gets carried away with weird similes and obsessive (if clever) detailing of behavioral quirks. With no sex, no magic, and hardly any violence, the book hardly qualifies as high fantasy anyway. But Peake's imagination is fairly wild, he pulls off some technically impressive writing experiments, and the sweeping Gothic weirdness of it all may carry you away. Still, I'm not really looking forward to the sequels Gormenghast and Titus Alone. (JA)
- I don't much disagree with Alroy's characterization, but I enjoyed the moody, dyspeptic writing so much I didn't care whether the plot ever resolved or not. It's not high fantasy at all - the story of the fading rulers of a crumbling castle is more a metaphor for the end of the British Empire than anything else - but it's a unique trip. Read the first page in a bookstore: either it'll grab you right away or you should just move on. I haven't scanned the cover of Gormenghast yet, so I'll write that review later, but it's the high point of the trilogy, with an honest-to-goodness plot and even some character development. Titus Alone, on the other hand, is dull self-indulgent dreck set in some version of the modern world. (DBW)