Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Titus Groan Book Review

by The Wanderer

Author: Mervyn Peake
Publisher: Overlook Press
Genre: Literary Fantasy
Series: Gormenghast Book One
Pages: 496

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On a bleak night in the castle Gormenghast, Titus Groan the future 77th Earl is born. On that same night a kitchen boy named Steerpike makes his daring escape from his monotonous employment.  It’s these two events that slowly bring about change to the stagnant life Gormenghast’s residents and servants.

When discussing the roots of modern fantasy, the names of two pioneers frequently emerge and they are J.R.R. Tolkien and Mervyn Peake.   Tolkien has had a lot more mainstream exposure, especially after the release of Peter Jackson’s movies, but Peake’s reputation has grown, even if he hasn’t had anywhere near the same amount of exposure as his counterpart. Tolkien and Peake are vastly different though. Tolkien focuses heavily on broad vast worldbuilding, magical cultures and beings, and thousands of years of in depth history.  Peake puts most of his effort into worldbuilding one location, creating highly memorable individual character personalities, and to telling his story in some of the most immaculate prose you will ever read.

To put an emphasis on that last point, Peake doesn’t just have some of the best prose amongst fantasy writers, he has some of the best prose period. Gormenghast is written with a romantic Gothic flavor. Stylistically the prose looks and feels a lot like the writing you’d find by Edgar Allan Poe.  This is a book that’s a slow-burner, one you spend your time savoring. The details and the visuals especially of the castle, which is in a monstrous state of decay, will leaving a lasting impression. Depending which edition you get you may find some of Peake’s own drawings of the characters and locations found in the castle. He was definitely a skilled artist.

While the book may be named after the future heir of the Gormenghast castle, Titus Groan, it’s really Steerpike that acts the plot’s catalyst.  It’s really hard to classify this character, you certainly wouldn’t call him a good guy, but he’s very sympathetic because he’s the only narrator in the castle that’s had to work hard to get where he’s at. Joining these two are a unique cast of colorful characters…

There’s Prunesquallor, the Doctor of Gormenghast who’s intelligent but incredibly facetious and verbose; Irma is Prunesquallor’s incredibly vain sister who suffers from loneliness and love sickness; Fuchisa is Titus’ older sister whom enjoys being alone and has an intimate connection with some of the world’s stranger things; Lord Sepulchrave is the current Lord of Gormenghast and spends most of his days reading or upholding the castles many strange traditions; Lady Gertrude is his wife who never leaves her bedroom that’s filled with cats and birds; Cora and Clarice are twins, Sepulchrave’s sisters, and are very dimwitted, but that doesn’t stop them from craving power and Gertrude’s downfall; Clay is the castle’s old and immensely loyal servant who has intense rivalry with castle’s cook. There are more characters than this and each one that’s introduced leaves their mark.

As much as I loved Titus Groan this is definitely not a book for everyone.  The plot moves very slowly and very few scenes of action do take place.  It’s literary fiction first, and fantasy second.  If you love what happens in a story more than how that story’s told then this is a book that’s probably not for you.  If you’re a patient reader and prose is something you give a damn about then you are in for a treat.  Titus Groan is one of the 20th century’s most beautifully written stories.

Score: 10

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