Overview: The trilogy is made up of ‘Titus Groan’, ‘Gormenghast’ and ‘Titus Alone’ and was written by Mervyn Peake in the mid-twentieth century. The novels chronicle the lives of the many and varied inhabitants of the vast, crumbling castle known as Gormenghast and although there are many stories, the books focus or at least revolve around the heir to the Gormenghast throne – Titus Groan.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t like the third book as much as the other two (and I’ll get on to that later) but not even that negative can detract from the overall awe and majesty and scope and brilliance of Peake’s work. It took until just page 4 of the first novel for it to suddenly dawn upon me that what I was reading was not just an average fantasy novel – but the work of a genius. To call his writing rich would be an understatement, it would take a student a week of work to analyse and unravel the minute meanings and descriptive brilliance of a single sentence. I admit that I did at times find it slow, like reading through treacle, but then so was Lord of the Rings, so I would not blame you for skipping a couple of paragraphs when it gets into deep description.
As for the characters, there are many, and each is well realised and often greatly amusing – I would find myself eagerly awaiting the next Dr Prunesquallor chapter. But it would take an age to list and summarise all of them and it would also be pointless, because there is only one character that I need talk about – Steerpike. He is quite simply the best, most well-realised, intelligent, fascinating, horrendous and evil villain ever created in fiction (at least that’s my opinion), at one and the same time you want him to die and to live forever, without him the books would be a rather dull masterpiece. These novels are worth reading just for Steerpike.
Titus Groan is the untitled main character of these books (especially the third) and some might say hero, although he would be unconventional if so. He is in some ways the reader’s way into the book because he is by far the most relatable and sympathetic character and also the most normal. His rebellion against the ancient and seemingly pointless rituals that bind the castle together day-to-day is understandable. I did at times find him annoying, and some of his actions might make you think him a prick, yet all the way I rooted for him.
As for the setting; let’s just say that the castle is pretty much a whole character in itself. The atmosphere that Peake creates inside this vast monument is thick enough to spread on toast, I loved every minute inside it’s walls, it is a gift to the imagination, Peake sets no limits to it’s size or appearance or age, you can make it your own.
Now my only niggle concerns the third book – ‘Titus Alone’, after finishing ‘Gormenghast’ I felt like that was a natural and proper ending, the story is told and wrapped up and could quite happily have ended there, but it doesn’t. The last book lacks a plot even more than the other two and at times seems to go from nowhere to nowhere; it rambles and without the familiarity and interest of Gormenghast castle the book seems lost. It was difficult to read for about a whole half of the book but I admit that the final third is quite good and more to form, the character of Muzzlehatch did grow on me after a while but I still missed Dr Prune. It is more about Titus than anything else, and how he develops and matures and struggles to find himself. The villain of the piece is introduced too late and their motives are dubious at best, and after Steerpike they just seem pathetic. This book just felt unnecessary, but despite that the writing is still amazing and I did enjoy the ending.
All-in-all these are some of my favourite books and among the best I have ever read – I strongly recommend them, just don’t expect dragons and magic and evil wizards. If anyone else has read them then I would like to know what you thought.