Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake
Review by Floresiensis
Titus Groan is the Seventy Seventh Earl of Gormenghast in waiting and his birth begins this story and that of his rather eccentric family, their servants and the kingdom of Gormenghast itself. The story covers the first two years of Titus’ young life, from birth to his investiture as the seventy-seventh Earl and everything that happens in the Kingdom of Gormenghast during this time. The events, which lead up to the ‘Earling’ of little Titus, involve treachery, greed, murder, madness and revenge. There are also touches of real affection and lots of subtle humour.
The beginning of the book certainly grabs your attention as the story begins outside the walls of Gormenghast Castle with the dwellers and draws you in with the birth of Titus to his most unconventional mother, the Countess Gertrude. The story flows well with the help of characters such as Flay who almost acts as unwitting guide to the reader around the castle and the other players in this tale.
The main protagonists in the story are the Groan family; Lady Fuchsia, Titus’ older sister, Lord Sepulchrave, the seventy-sixth and current Earl and the Countess. Their dysfunctional relationship with one another translates through their relationship with their servants and subjects. Central to events is Steerpike, a very bright and opportunistic kitchen porter looking for a way out and seeing the insecurities and mistrust within the royal household ripe for exploitation, not least through Sepulchrave’s twin sisters Cora and Clara who are constantly looking for ways to unseat their sister-in-law and bring their own profiles to the fore. He is also intrigued with Lady Fuchsia who whilst drawn to him also is deeply suspicious of him.
“Isn’t he sweet, oh isn’t he the sweetest drop of sugar that ever was?” said Mrs Slagg.
“Who?” shouted the Countess so loudly that a string of tallow wavered in the shifting light.
The baby awoke at the sound and moaned, and Nannie Slagg retreated.
“His little lordship”, she whimpered weakly, “his pretty little lordship”.
“Slagg”, said the Countess, “go away! I would like to see the boy when he is six. Find a wet nurse from the Outer Dwellings. Make him green dresses from the velvet curtains. Take this gold ring of mine. Fix a chain to it. Let him wear it around his wry little neck. Call him Titus. Go away and leave the door six inches open.”
The Character of Lady Fuchsia appears to be the one innocent; Titus being unaware of anything happening around him and being as yet unable to interact with any of the unfolding events, she seems torn between her status of royal of Gormenghast and being a normal teenage girl looking for her parents love and attention. Her main confidant is Doctor Prunesquallor, the Royal Physician, who seems to be the only person in her small and fettered world that seems to truly care about Fuchsia and her welfare.
The book is written in the third person, which allows the characters and events unfold simultaneously. The land of Gormenghast is described in enough detail for you to realise that this is a land unlike any other, especially Gormenghast castle and certainly adds quirkiness to an already unusual tale. My favourite parts of the book are when you begin to see Steerpike’s dark side and how he skilfully plots his next move like a chess game. I also very much enjoyed the sub plot involving Sepulchrave’s manservant Flay and the chef Swelter.
Deliciously dark, Titus Groan is the first book of the Gormenghast trilogy so it is to be expected that towards the end of the story new characters are introduced and new plots begin whilst old ones are left resolved. This certainly gives an air of ‘cliff hanger’ to the final chapter and I am impatiently looking forward to reading the next book in the series.
David from Ireland
These novels aren't easy reads, but they are works of genius. The prose is hauntingly beautiful, the characters are wonderfully imagined but it's the location that is this trilogy's crowning glory. Weighed down by tradition and ritual, Gormenghast shapes all those who grow up in its shadow. While this weightiness makes the first read difficult, the vivid images that remain in the memory make perserverence worthwhile. In my mind it deserves to be ranked among the top 3 fantasy books, perhaps as the greatest.
Stick from upstate NY from Oneonta
This is the absolute worst in this list, possibly excepting Shardik (not on list). Struggled to finish 1st, made thru 1/3 next and gave up. Horrible. Anyone read E.R. Eddison "The Worm Ouroboros" and notice similarity to WoT?
Sharon from US
Revolutionary. World of series falls apart like a house of cards--seminal sensibility for modern sci-fi fantasy and I'd put in top 20.
Robert from Ashburton
They are well written and very good books.
Paul from Australia
First started reading approx 30 years ago. Since then have attempted to read it about 3 times yet have never finished it. It is a tough read... slow and ponderous come to mind. Descriptive and dark. 6/10 for what I've managed to read...
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