Saturday, June 21, 2008

Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake

Titus Groan covers a year in the life of its eponymous protagonist, but the strange thing is that it's the first year of his life. When the book opens, the wife of the Earl of the great castle of Gormenghast has just given birth to the Earl's heir, Titus. The earldom that Titus will inherit is a strange one, comprised of a colossal, labyrinthine castle filled with strange rooms and secret passageways, and the peasants' hut-like dwellings that cling like barnacles to the castle's side--but no one in the castle really thinks about them too often, so who cares?

Titus doesn't do a whole lot but eat and poop, so the burden of being the main character in Titus Groan falls to Steerpike, an ambitious young man whose career in the castle begins in the kitchen, but through a calculated scheme of flattery and manipulation increases his standing with the Earl and his family.

I have seen the Gormenghast trilogy mentioned in various sources to be a more deserving compliment to the Harry Potter books; supposedly laden with the same fantastic charms but with more literary merit. This isn't far off; though there is no magic in the world of Gormenghast, the whimsically named characters--like Flay, Swelter, and Dr. Prunesquallor--and the inventiveness of the castle--which, to name one example, contains a room filled floor to ceiling with the painted roots of a giant tree--are certainly Rowlingesque.

But while Peake seems to have an easier time using language to build his world than Rowling, Titus Groan lacks some of the affability of the Potter series. Of the ensemble cast, only two characters attract any real interest or exhibit any likeability--the well-employed Steerpike, and the criminally underused Fuschia, daughter of the Earl. Perhaps this aspect of the series improves in the next book, in which Titus will be older--but I have not yet decided if I'm going to get that far.

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