Titus Groan, by Mervyn Peake

Titus Groan is a literary marvel and a flight of fancy beyond all comparison. Set in the bizarre and strange castle of Gormenghast and its surroundings, the story is centred around the birth of Titus Groan, the only son of the Sepulchrave Groan, Earl of Gormenghast. Titus himself remains a baby throughout the novel – which focuses first on one, then another of the inhabitants of the rambling monster of a castle, from the darkly emotional Fuschia Groan to her father the morose Earl, and from the hugely fat and ominous cook to the self-interested and ruthlessly ambitious Steerpike.

It is Steerpike who is the driving force of the novel. We first meet him in the kitchens, where he is a drudge to the awful Swelter, the castle cook. He immediately makes his escape, and toils tirelessly to rise through the ranks of servants by manipulating everybody around him. His machinations are not noticed by anybody saving perhaps the Countess, and the Doctor, who although at first taken in by his flattery, cleverness and willingness to work, has his suspicions… After all – somebody must be at the root of all that has happened at Gormenghast.

The plot, however, seems almost secondary to the actual word-craft deployed in this novel. Titus Groan and the world of Gormenghast is a creation of unbridled fantasy unlike any other. Peake writes convincingly, using words in unusual ways – making them work harder, making them sidle into unfamiliar situations; much as the reader is presented with an unfamiliar and daunting world of shadows and misery in Gormenghast. Yet although the picture painted is a dark one, it is not without its beauty. Peake’s brilliance is in his creativity even when it seems to serve little purpose. There are many descriptions of small facets of Gormenghast which bear no relation to any other – save that they build up the reader’s picture of its world.

Titus Groan is not an easy read, but it is not for nothing that it is hailed as one of the literary classics – it deserves its place there.

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The Dragon’s Path, by Daniel Abraham

The first part of a conventional fantasy trilogy, The Dragon’s Path is set in a world ravaged by petty wars and conflicts, under which runs a more serious strand of mysticism. The book follows the popular fantasy notion of being set in an era after the fall of dragons, although nobody seems quite sure how they fell or what happened immediately afterwards. The book opens in a prologue which tells of the desperate escape of an acolyte from a mysterious Temple. He has learnt the power of discerning truth from lies, and being able convince others that what he says himself is true, but has apparently discovered that everything he has been taught is a lie. The theme of truth and falsehood runs throughout the novel, and it seems to be this upon which the entire trilogy will be constructed, but in The Dragon’s Path perhaps with more subtlety than in the next books to come, as at this stage the Temple and its priests are almost entirely lost to the rest of the world.

The story follows a handful of central characters who all influence the flow of events on the continent, each little decision having an impact on the whole, and seemingly shifting the world closer to ‘the Dragon’s Path’, or in other words, a full-blown war. Of the main players, one is an influential nobleman whose notions of honour dictate his life, and whose loyalty to his king results in ruthless behaviours towards his enemies. Another is a nobleman’s son apparently ill-suited to war who prefers to study essays and learn about the world through ancient texts. He seems at first a character with whom the reader might sympathise, but war has a strong effect on everybody, and one of the most interesting aspects of the book is the revelation of how the different characters react to the situations they find themselves in. Is the overtly honourable man actually the most honourable? Are people what they seem? Other characters of import are among a troupe of actors – which adds to the theme of truth and deceit – an ex-army general, and a young girl charged with smuggling an unbelievable amount of wealth from a besieged city bank. It is this quest which most occupies the reader’s attention, as the majority of sympathetic characters are involved in the transportation of the wealth – whether knowingly or not.

In general, the characters are well-drawn, and the fantasy setting well-explained without seeming like a lesson. However, compared to some other books of the genre the language is a little less sophisticated. The action tends to be favoured above anything else, and while this has the benefit of moving the scenes along and more importantly the plot, it leaves the novel without a certain elegance.

Overall, and perhaps most crucially, the reader is left with the curiosity to find out the fates of the players involved, and it will be interesting to see how the second and third books build on both plot and characterisation.