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The Pastel City (1971)

by M. John Harrison

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Viriconium (1)

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Read as part of 'Viriconium' omnibus. See 'In Viriconium' entry for edition information. ( )
  fmc712 | Feb 18, 2021 |
I had heard a lot about the Viriconium books, but never been able to find a copy of either the omnibus or The Pastel City until recently. I have to say I'm a little disappointed, but I'll probably search another few years for the next one. The disappointment: a lot of this book is pretty plodding and uninteresting - while the descriptions of the ruined landscape were probably revolutionary at one time, there are only so many times you can read about stagnant mires and rust deserts before it starts to wear thin. The ending is good, but it feels like the book ends right where it's going to get interesting. In summary: I'm not thrilled by this, but I'm curious enough to go one more. ( )
  skolastic | Feb 2, 2021 |


The first of four Viriconium books, The Pastel City is a spectacular tale of adventure with philosophical overtones and undertones. Rather than shining the spotlight on the arch of events, here are a batch of notables a reader will encounter along the way:

The Order of Methven: An invasion from the north propels old warrior Lord tegeus-Cromis out of retirement. And to think, he was planning to live his remaining years in his tower as a recluse composing poetry and playing music. Sorry, Cromis! You must strap on your famous sword and ride your horse to gather your Methven friends who once fought ferociously on behalf of Viriconium since impending disaster requires you to defend your young queen and the lands within her domain.

We join tall, thin Cromis from the first to last chapter, the ideal main character for M. John Harrison since the aging champion radiates knightly virtue and is a keen observer of beauty both in nature and in art.

The New Earth: Viriconium and the Pastel City arose five hundred years following the collapse of the Afternoon Cultures with their highly technological and scientific achievements, cultures such as our own which left a vast wasteland of rust and decay. In this new age, the transformation of fauna and flora is striking - for example, there are docile giant lizards nearly the size of dinosaurs and great sloth-like beasts fifteen feet tall when standing upright, beasts known as albino megatheria so gentle and friendly the queen keeps one as a house pet.

Mysterious Messenger: A huge vulture approaches Cromis and delivers a message: "go at once to the tower of Cellur on the Girvan Bay." On closer inspection Cromis can see the vulture is made of intricately formed metal and is capable of engaging in dialogue, a creature, he reckons, made with know-how from the Afternoon cultures.

Energy Weapons: Diabolical instruments from the Afternoon Cultures that perhaps electrocute their victims. The author cleverly doesn't elaborate here; rather, he leaves the details of these deadly weapons to the reader's imagination.

Airboats: Yet again another piece of technology from the Afternoon Cultures, crafts frequently equipped with energy cannons. Not surprisingly, Viriconiums judge those Afternoon Cultures as geared toward war and destruction. Quite a statement on our present era.

Dwarf Eleven Feet Tall: One of the most fascinating parts of the novel: Cromis' old fighting friend, ax wielding Tomb the dwarf rigs himself with an immense motorized skeleton contraption with extended arms and legs so he can swing into battle towering above mere men, "a gigantic paradox suspended on the thin line between comedy and horror." Not only is Tomb a fighter and master mechanic, this dwarf spouts one-liners like a first-rate stand-up comic. Thanks, M. John! Every life and death adventure needs a spot of humor.

The Birdmaker: Cellur of Lendalfoot has gathered the wisdom of hundreds of years as he had passed beyond time into a state of exaltation. "He wore a loose, unbelted black robe - quilted in grouped arrangements of lozenges - which was embroidered in gold wire patterns resembling certain geometries cut into the towers of the Pastel City: those queer and uneasy signs that might equally have been the visual art or the language of the mathematics of Time itself."

Jolt of the Weird: Similar to British author Christopher Priest with his expanding of dimensions, such things as time, space, gravity or invisibility, an expansion I term "jolt of the weird," we likewise encounter such a weird jolt in the concluding chapters of The Pastel City.

In this way, Viriconium is NOT in the fantasy tradition of J. R. R. Tolkien. Nope, no fantasy novel for M. John Harrison. There is good reason the author has been called a genre contrarian. Some might even see him as a genre smasher - after all, he has spoken openly about his dissatisfaction with the boundaries and categories set for much genre fiction.

As to how exactly M. John Harrison expands, zigzags, reshapes and otherwise explodes and revitalizes the world of Viriconium, you will have to read for yourself.


British author M. John Harrison, born 1945

"Above him rose the Pastel Towers, tall and gracefully shaped to mathematical curves, tinted pale blue or fuchsia or dove-grey. They reached up for hundreds of feet, cut with quaint and complex designs that some said were the high point of an inimitable art, thought by others to be representations of the actual geometries of Time." - M. John Harrison, The Pastel City
  Glenn_Russell | Nov 13, 2018 |
My reactions to reading this novel in 2004.

A rather dull fantasy set in a dying world winding down from better, more technologically advanced days. Mining the ruins and artifacts of those more advanced days is a major preoccupation. Harrison seems to think that he can get by with some obscure poetic descriptions and Homeric like epithets (for instance, our hero tegeus-Cromus's weapon is constantly described as "the nameless sword"). Still, given the criticism I've read of this series, I'll probably read the rest. This novel seems uninspired hack work, but, supposedly, Harrison later, in the series, introduces some radical, self-conscious innovations attacking generic fantasy conventions and introducing some Arthurian elements.
  RandyStafford | Dec 12, 2015 |
3.5 stars
ORIGINALLY POSTED AT Fantasy Literature.

Viriconium sits on the ruins of an ancient civilization that nobody remembers. The society that was technologically advanced enough to create crystal airships and lethal energy weapons is dead. These Afternoon Cultures depleted the world??s metal ores, leaving mounds of inscrutable rusted infrastructure with only a few odds and ends that still work. The current citizens of Viriconium are baffled by what theyƒ??ve dug up, but they have no idea what any of it is for.

tegeus-Cromis, ƒ??who fancies himself a better poet than swordsman,ƒ? used to be Viriconiumƒ??s best fighter until he left the Pastel City after King Methven died. But Viriconium is now under threat ƒ?? young Queen Jane, Methvenƒ??s daughter, is about to lose the empire to her evil cousin. Queen Jane needs the help of the men who once served her father so faithfully, so she sends tegeus-Cromis to find and take command of her army. Along the way, he picks up some of his old comrades and is accosted by a talking metal vulture who insists that Cromis go directly to see a mysterious man who lives in an obsidian tower by the sea. According to the mechanical bird, the future of Viriconium, indeed the whole world, depends on it. As the men travel north, they discover that the Afternoon Cultures left behind a lot more than piles of rusting metal.

The Pastel City, published in 1971, is the first part (only 158 pages) of M. John Harrisonƒ??s science fantasy epic VIRICONIUM which, according to sources, was inspired by Jack Vanceƒ??s DYING EARTH and the poetry of T.S. Eliot. Characterization and pacing are sometimes a bit weak, but the scenery in The Pastel City is grand, and I enjoyed the story. In many ways it reminded me of THE LORD OF THE RINGS ƒ?? a group of comrades (including a dwarf) travel through beautiful and desolate landscapes (across rivers and marshes, through mountain tunnels, etc.) on a quest to destroy something so they can save the world.

A major difference, and what saves the book from being simply another quest fantasy, is the post-apocalyptic vision of an unknown advanced civilization which died out mysteriously, leaving samples of their devastating handiwork behind. Thus, the dwarf arms himself with an 11-foot tall mechanical skeleton and carries some sort of laser. Cromis and his friends ride into one battle on horseback, but leave in a glass blimp. Cool.

I was fascinated by the discoveries that Cromis and his friends made and the hints that the Afternoon Cultures understood the mathematics of the universe. The thought that our heroes may have ƒ??woken something from the Old Scienceƒ? is a frightening one, especially since they have less idea about how to control it than their dead predecessors did. Thereƒ??s a clear message here, but itƒ??s not heavy-handed. As Queen Jane says:

We have always regarded the Afternoon Cultures as a high point in the history of mankind. Theirs was a state to be striven for, despite the mistakes that marred it. How could they have constructed such things? Why, when they had the stars beneath their hands?

Though Iƒ??m reviewing each book in the VIRICONIUM epic separately, Iƒ??m actually listening to the audiobook version of the omnibus edition. Itƒ??s recently been produced by Neil Gaiman Presents and is narrated by Simon Vance who is one of the absolute best in the business. This is a high-quality production and highly recommended for anyone who wants to read one of M. John Harrisonƒ??s best-loved works. ( )
  Kat_Hooper | Apr 6, 2014 |
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» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
M. John Harrisonprimary authorall editionscalculated
Morrow, GrayCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pennington, BruceCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Tweddell, KevinCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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