Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls. They sprawled over the sloping earth, each one half way over its neighbour until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold on the great walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets to a rock
So begins Titus Groan, the first book in the Gormenghast series by Mervyn Peake; a novel that distinguishes itself by its hauntingly dark and sumptuous prose. Characters with names like Mr. Flay, Nanny Slagg, Doctor Prunesquallor, Steerpike, and Lord Sepulchrave live in the halls of the dark setting of Gormenghast, a castle and a kingdom joined into one vast, sprawling collection of buildings and ramparts. In the contemporary world of fantasy literature, frequently inundated with formulaic Tolkien-esque books, the Gormenghast series deserves a place with the most celebrated of works.
This raises the question of its current obscurity. Perhaps much of the reason that it has remained so unknown is its uncommon narrative style. Titus, the title character, remains a toddler throughout the entire story, and no clear hero ever emerges. In a genre where the dichotomy of good versus evil is ever apparent, Gormenghast departs from convention. Peake chooses to immerse his reader in a visceral, nearly tangible realm rather than provide serious action. Therefore, I warn you now, Peake is not a writer for everybody. If you like a fast paced story, I would advise against the series, as Titus Groan is frequently meandering and slow.
The first novel in the trilogy follows the actions of the Groans, a family of ancient heritage who have produced the Earl of Gormenghast for seventy-seven generations. Newly born Titus is the next in line to the Earldom, but for the majority of the novel, we follow his sister, Fuschia Groan, and the Machiavellian youth Steerpike, as well as several of the servants of the castle. Peake succeeds admirably in his character development, introducing characters without bias so that it is impossible to predict their development based on their initial description alone. The characters develop personalities rather than sporting embellished stereotypes.
The novel is tinged by underlying tensions of loneliness and alienation, even though it contains its own dark humor. The inhabitants of Gormenghast are few and solitary. Lord Sepulchrave and Lady Gertrude, the Earl and his wife, never talk and only see each other at the numerous meaningless rituals that dictate life at the castle. Fuschia Groan, their daughter, has grown up knowing only the love of her old Nanny, and has lost herself in vivid daydreams. But it is not all bleak and depressing—there is a comedy in their interactions, and hope as each character finds something to love, be it themselves or their hundreds of white cats (you’ll have to read it to figure that one out). With this in mind, I heartily recommend Titus Groan to any discerning reader.
About the Reviewer:
Lady Almira Inchcombe is presently serving on the all-female crew of the H.M.S. Chronabelle, an airship docked in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is acting Weapons Specialist, Event Planner, and Book Enthusiast. A couple of years ago, she became interested in this strange thing called ‘steampunk’ and the rest is history. In her spare time, she goes by the pseudonym of Tessa, and masquerades as a student.