Friday, 18 September 2009

Reading Challenge #9 - Lord Valentine's Castle, Robert Silverberg

I can't say I'm a huge Silverberg fan. I've read many of his books and short stories, and I've enjoyed them. But I've never made an effort to seek out those of his works I've not read - as I have done with some other writers. To be fair, Silverberg is one of the stalwarts of the genre. He's had - and still has, of course - a fifty-four year writing career, and has mostly produced good books and stories. During that more-than-half-a-century, he has won four Hugo Awards and five Nebula Awards.

Silverberg's most well-known creation is, arguably, the world of Majipoor, on which he has set seven novels, two novellas and a short story. The first of these is Lord Valentine's Castle, published in 1980.

Majipoor is a big planet - in fact, it was inspired by Jack Vance's novel, Big Planet - with four enormous continents. The world has been settled for thousands of years and has a population of some sixty billion; but it is now something of a backwater, and rarely visited by people from other planets. It is home to several races - humans, Skandars, Ghayrogs, Vroons, Su-Suheris, Liimen, and Hjorts. There are also the native Metamorphs, from whom the humans took the world, and they now live in a reservation. Majipoor is ruled by four potentates - the Coronal, who is the executive arm of government and rules from his castle atop the thirty-mile-high Castle Mount; the Pontifex, the legislative arm, who lives in the Labyrinth; the Lady of the Isle of Sleep, who through dreams provides the world's moral framework; and the King of Dreams, who punishes wrongdoers, also through dreams.

Lord Valentine's Castle opens with a man called Valentine on a ridge looking down upon the city of Pidruid, on the western shore of the continent Zimroel. He doesn't know who he is, or how he got there. A passing boy, taking cattle to market in Pidruid, approaches him and the two enter the city together. Within a couple of chapters, Valentine has shown an uncanny natural ability at juggling, and joined a juggling troupe. The Coronal - also called Valentine - is due to appear shortly in Pidruid on the Grand Processional all coronals take shortly after ascending to power.

The name is not a coincidence. Valentine the juggler soon learns that he was Coronal Valentine but, by some art or science never explained, his mind has been swapped into another body and someone else has taken his place as coronal. The more of his memory Valentine recovers, the more he determines to take back his throne. So he travels across Zimroel to its east coast, and there takes ship to the Isle of Sleep, in order to persuade the Lady (who is always the mother of the coronal) of his true identity. And after succeeding in doing that, he continues on to the eastern continent, Alhanroel, to first gain the Pontifex's support, and then march on Castle Mount and throw down the usurper.

And that's pretty much the plot. Silverberg intended that "the book must be fun" - "all light, delightful, raffish..." And in that respect he succeeds. Valentine encounters obstacles on his way, but he overcomes them. He has exciting adventures - some of which seem a little too much, such as being swallowed by a legendarily giant sea-dragon while en route to the Isle of Sleep.

But then, Lord Valentine's Castle is not a book to take seriously. It has a simple plot and a hero who prevails. It is, above all, colourful - Valentine's journey east is very descriptive. And everything he sees and meets is exotic. And we know it is exotic because Silverberg has given it a made-up name. Although not all names, it has to be said, actually work all that well. "Niyk-tree" isn't too bad, nor is "blave"; but "stajja" and "dhiim" just look like typographical accidents.

What strikes me most about this book is not the acknowledged debt it owes to Big Planet, but the debt it owes to Vance. Silverberg is channelling Vance. He does it well, because Silverberg is nothing if not a master craftsman. But, all the same, Lord Valentine's Castle often feels a little like there's too much Vance in it, as if Silverberg has crammed several novels by Vance into one book - which at 506 pages (in my 1982 Pan paperback; not the cover shown above) probably is equivalent to several novels by Vance...

Unlike some of the other books I've read in this year's reading challenge, I didn't regret rereading Lord Valentine's Castle. I quite enjoyed it. It's mind candy, but the sort of mind candy a friend might bring back from a trip to a foreign country - still fluffy, but with an exotic flavour to it. It's a good book to read on a dull journey. And, like many books of its type, its general shape will linger - that the world of Majipoor is so big, Castle Mount and the Fifty Cities on its slopes, the overall story of the book but not Valentine's individual adventures... and that it all ends happily. It had been a good twenty years or more since I last read Lord Valentine's Castle, and still it felt comfortably familiar. Which is no bad thing sometimes.

4 comments:

Adam Roberts said...

Mind candy can lead to mind caries, you know.

This one isn't at all bad, I agree: more, my memory of it is that it's both very readable, and often genuinely delightful. It's helped on its way by (as you note) its Vanceishness. But some of the sequels sink pretty low.

Ian Sales said...

Happily, the "reading challenge" thing means I don't have to go near the sequels - of which I have previously read all but King of Dreams and about which I remember almost nothing.

gary gibson said...

I'll have to be honest, this book nearly stopped me ever reading sf again when I read it not long after it came out. It is to William Gibson's Neuromancer as Pink Floyd's Animals is to The Sex Pistol's first album. I picked it up at a time when I was starting - or trying - to get seriously wired into paperback sf and still figuring out my tastes, and LVC nearly gave me brain-rot. And I would never have bought it if it hadn't been by a supposed 'master' of sf.

It's probably the main reason I've rarely read any Silverberg since; back at the time it came out, the relative genre ingenue was faced with that, Asimov's Robots of Dawn and Heinlein's Number of the Beast. Jeez. No wonder I nearly gave up.

Mind you - I did in more recent years finally read Silverberg's Book of Skulls, which is fantastic, and Dying Inside just a couple of months ago. If LVC was written to pay off a couple of fast bills, fair do's, but it's in my own personal opinion utterly lacking in merit.

Kay Sales said...

It's probably the only book of yours I read and then dropped in the bath. I did like it though and also read the other two after that....