I was in Viriconium once. I was a much younger woman then. What a place that is for lovers! The Locust Winter carpets its streets with broken insects; at the corners they sweep them into strange-smelling drifts which glow for the space of a morning like heaps of gold before they fade away.
Viriconium Nights is the last book in M. John Harrison's VIRICONIUM epic. It's a collection of these seven short stories set in and around the city of Viriconium:
-- "The Lamia and Lord Cromis" -- tegeus-Cromis, a dwarf, and a man named Dissolution Kahn travel to a poisonous bog to destroy a dangerous Lamia.
-- "Viriconium Knights" -- Ignace Retz, a young swordsman and treasure seeker, discovers an old man who has a tapestry which shows Retz at different times in Viriconium's history.
-- "The Luck in the Head" -- In the Artists' Quarter, the poet Ardwick Crome has been having a recurring dream about a ceremony called "the Luck in the Head." He wants these disturbing dreams to stop, so he goes looking for one of the women in the dream. (BTW, there's a graphic novel based on this story.)
-- "Strange Great Sins" -- A man from the country goes to Viriconium, falls in love with the ballerina Vera Ghillera, and wastes away. This story looks at the city of Viriconium from the perspective of outsiders who know that those who go there either are, or will become, decadent and self-absorbed.
-- "Lords of Misrule" -- tegeus-Cromis visits an estate outside the city of Viriconium which is under threat of invasion and won't survive if Viriconium won't help.
-- "The Dancer From the Dance" -- The ballerina Vera Ghillera from "Strange Great Sins" visits Allman's Heath where strange things are afoot.
-- "A Young Man's Journey to Viriconium" -- This final story, set in our world, explains that Viriconium is a real place and tells you exactly how to get there, in case you want to go. The doorway is a mirror in a bathroom in a café in England.
The stories in Viriconium Nights contain some of the characters we've met in the previous VIRICONIUM books (e.g., tegeus-Cromis, Ansel Verdigris, Audsley King, Paulinus Rack, Ashlyme) and include many allusions to recurring events and motifs: mechanical metal birds, tarot cards, locusts, the fish mask, big lizards, the Mari Lwyd, etc. Each story stands alone but focuses on the city of Viriconium and particularly the bohemian residents of the Artists' Quarter. All of Viriconium is decaying, but this part of the city feels especially bleak, probably because it's peopled with brooding artistic types whose desperation results in freakish hedonistic behavior.
Though there are recurring characters in the VIRICONIUM works, we never get to know any of them very well. The haunting, weird, incomprehensible city is the main character. M. John Harrison has explained that he didn't want Viriconium to be "tamed" or "controlled," so he has confused and disoriented the reader by making it impossible to understand what it would be like to live in his world: "I made that world increasingly shifting and complex. You can not learn its rules. More importantly, Viriconium is never the same place twice." I think this is more successful in the last three parts of VIRICONIUM -- the first novel, The Pastel City, is almost a traditional quest fantasy.
VIRICONIUM is one of those works that I feel like I should give 5 stars just because it's original and M. John Harrison's prose is brilliant. Harrison is a master of style and his writing is superior to most of what's offered on the SFF shelves.
However, the truth is that though I recognize Harrison's genius, I can't say that I enjoyed every moment of VIRICONIUM, which may be a reflection on me more than on the work itself. Spending so much time in a city that's unknowable and decaying resulted, for me, in an overwhelming feeling of disorientation and hopelessness. The characters and the plot, which feel like they are there only to support the role of the city, don't make up for this. A month from now, I probably won't remember any of the plots in Viriconium Nights. But I will remember Viriconium.
If you decide to read VIRICONIUM, I highly recommend the audio version produced by Neil Gaiman Presents. Simon Vance's performance is excellent.