Monday, March 22, 2010

The Malacia Tapestry

The second of the 100 Must-Read Fantasy Novels challenge.

I’d never read any Brian Aldiss before. He’s predominantly a science fiction writer and as I’m not much of a science fiction fan he’d never interested me as an author. Until finding out about The Malacia Tapestry I was not even aware he’d written any fantasy, let alone something that seems to be regarded as a minor classic.

Calling The Malacia Tapestry a novel is rather misleading, it’s a series of vignettes that are loosely held together largely by the fact that they are all set in and around the fictional city of Malacia and told from the point of view of the idle, hedonistic, morally bankrupt actor Perian de Chirolo.

Some of the fun of the book is in trying to work out where Malacia is in our world or where it’s based on. There are elements of Renaissance Florence or Venice in the city, and I’ve seen a theory elsewhere that it’s in Dalmatia. While Malacia itself is obviously not real with its references to lizard men, flying people and ancestral animals (from the brief descriptions given they appear to be related to dinosaurs), there are a number of references to places such as Bosnia and the Ottomans. Malacia may be in some sort of alternate reality or world, there are hints that people are descended from the lizards that are now generally used by the Malacians as menials.

The stories are told in the first person by Perian de Chirolo and assume knowledge of the city and its wonders, which is a device Aldiss uses quite effectively so as to not over explain or describe what he is writing about. At times this can be frustrating, but overall it works successfully and retains a sense of wonder and gives the reader the feeling of reading about a genuinely alien place.

I found the book hard to take to, mainly because of Perian. I can’t really call him a hero, as he embodies so many characteristics that are anything but heroic. Anti-hero fits him nicely. Perian spends most of his time using his charm to prevail upon women for a living and sexual favours. He is, like his equally vacuous friend Guy de Lambant, an actor, although I don’t think he is ever paid for acting, I suspect he only pretends at being an actor because the ladies like it and it means he doesn’t have to actually get a job. Perian is not at all likeable and I wanted him to come to a sticky end.

The book lacks focus and this makes you wonder why you’re reading as there doesn’t seem to be any real point to the whole thing. One possible focus could be the way Malacia fiercely resists progress of any sort, this is what leads one of the other main characters; Progressive and foreign inventor Otto Benghtsohn, the owner and creator of a primitive form of movie camera to a tragic end.

Ultimately the lack of focus and purpose combined with an unsympathetic protagonist made the book a less than enjoyable experience. It’s hard to know what else to recommend to anyone who was thinking of reading this or something similar because I’ve never read anything quite like it. Two works that have elements that put me in mind of The Malacia Tapestry are: Scott Lynch’s first volume of the Gentleman Bastards series; The Lies Of Locke Lamora, the setting of Camorr, a city obviously based on Renaissance Venice is not unlike Malacia and more oddly Terry Pratchett’s Moving Pictures, the 10th Discworld book satirises Hollywood, but contains a magically powered moving making device which put me in mind of the ill fated Bengtsohn’s zahnoscope.

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