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Five stars
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The second volume of Mervyn Peake's prodigious Gormenghast Trilogy gives readers a breather from the melancholy of Titus Groan, favoring instead a broader emotional narrative concerning the strange goings-on in the crumbling city-sized castle. While the first half of the novel, the longest and most expansive of this trilogy, delivers some uproariously funny scenes and characters, the second half turns more suspenseful, urgent, and tragic. Peake revels in the grotesqueries of his ever-growing cast, much in the way Charles Dickens delighted in the sheer ugliness and pathetic qualities of many of his more villianous and twisted creations.

Here we meet the Professors, a ludicrous collection of eccentric and useless old fossils who staff the castle's halls of learning with just as much moribund futility as any of Gormenghast's other pointless acts of ritual. Here, poor, pitiful Irma Prunesquallor, the spinsterish sister of the castle's flamboyant doctor, attempts to come out of her shell and hosts a hilarious and yet touching party in an attempt to find a suitor. And here, Steerpike, the power-mad youth who has schemed, lied, and duped his way into the upper ranks of the castle's heirarchy, descends into final, murderous evil.

And yet, there is a real humanity to even the lowliest of Gormenghast's denizens. With its epic sweep, unflagging pace, and broad range that takes the reader from hilarity to horror and back again, Gormenghast is Mervyn Peake's greatest novel and one of the finest works of fantasy in the English language.

There seems little sense in summarizing such a mammoth plot, especially if one doesn't want to risk delivering too many spoilers. And as one droll critic has written, "To speak of these novels as being 'about' anything is as inadequate as saying The Odyssey is about a man trying to get home to his wife." This is storytelling at its purest, a tale of people with whose loves, weaknesses, strengths, crimes and tragedies we become so familiar, it's as if they are family to us. And you feel it that closely, too, when some of them die. Briefly put, Gormenghast offers us the life of Titus, born in the first novel, from age seven to about 17. In this time, beloved characters go, return, and/or die; love is found in the least likely places; evil schemes are hatched, carried out, then punished. Disaster befalls the castle in the form of a monumental flood (one of the great set-pieces in fantasy lit), and an arch-villain is hunted down in a harrowing climax that leaves you breathless. And through it all, Titus grows and evolves, coming to despise the rigidity and meaningless devotion to interminable tradition that has become the castle's self-perpetuating raison d'etre. No, Titus wants to live, to break free, to explore, to learn of the world beyond Gormenghast, where Gormenghast and its rituals mean nothing. Though Titus knows that if he does leave, the line of Groan will end and it will essentially be the end of Gormenghast to boot, the impetus is too strong. The call of the world simply cannot be denied.

Gormenghast is must-read fiction, that's all. You'll finish it with a small spike of regret stabbing at your heart, and a desire to start again at page one the moment the back cover is closed. It's a tale to be cherished for life. This is as good as it gets.

Followed by Titus Alone.