Master Classics

Master Classics

Somewhat by chance, I’ve been reading three classic works by three SFF masters at the same time. Not just classics, in fact, but possibly the three most popular works by these authors (which is not to say their best). I started with Jack Vance‘s Lyonesse trilogy, added Robert Silverberg‘s Lord Valentine’s Castle, and finally Mervyn Peake‘s Gormenghast trilogy. Also Gabriel García MárquezLa Hojarasca (The Leaf Storm), though I’m not sure that fits in. I usually read different books in different places (more on that in another post), so I’ve essentially got them all going at once.

I didn’t have any grand plan in choosing these three works. Someone on Goodreads invited me to a Great Gormenghast Read, and while I loved the books, I hadn’t read them in a while. Lyonesse, which I disliked when I first read it, happened to be next up in my Compact Vance Integral Edition. I chanced to find a battered copy of Lord Valentine’s Castle at home, and took it with me as a convenient travel book (which I then didn’t read while traveling). So, it was circumstance that brought them all together.
I was surprised by the similarities and connections I found. Silverberg, while clearly his own man, writes in a somewhat Vancian way. Not as elaborate or formal, but there’s an undertone of similarity in his descriptions of the weird creatures and customs of Majipoor that reminded me immediately of Vance. I’d never noticed the similarity before. He also refers to Peake and Gormenghast. In the vast underground labyrinth of the Pontifex, we meet high counselor Sepulthrove, whose name is, I think, not coincidentally similar to the Earl Sepulchrave that rules over Gormenghast’s sea of stone.
In contrast to Silverberg’s story, which I had recalled as adventurous, I expected Vance and Peake to be similar. I recall the writing in both as dense, intricate, and literate. I hadn’t liked the Lyonesse trilogy the first time around, and somewhat dreaded reading it again. I was surprised by both. Both do write, in fact, in a dense and formal style, but Peake’s prose is in support of striking imagery – immense fields of stone, pools of midnight, white horses in lakes on towers. It’s Peake’s images that have stayed with me all these years, and they struck me again as I re-read. But Titus Groan, the first book, is in fact very quick to read through. The images are detailed and effective, but there are so many queer characters to wonder about, and enough plot lines to follow, that the book never becomes heavy.


Vance’s writing is different. It’s equally dense, but is elaborate for the sake of elaboration – so decorative that the words themselves are the reason for reading, and characters and plot are something of a bonus. That’s not to say they’re weak, but for me, they’re not the main incentive. I’d read Vance’s description of a shopping trip, if written in this way. There’s a scene in the second Lyonesse book, The Green Pearl, that could be taken as a reference to Gormenghast – a tower of owls in a complex castle, but it may well be coincidence.

La Hojarasca

For that matter, in La Hojarasca, there’s a man described as having a calf’s head, which was reminiscent of Gormenghast’s Rottcodd substituting a calf’s skull for his father’s at the burial, but again, that’s likely coincidence.

I’m almost always reading (and writing) many books at once. It makes them go slower (extending the pleasure), but it also sometimes brings out connections I might never have spotted otherwise.