Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi lives in a vast House of marble statues, so tall that its top story is in the clouds and its lowest is filled with floods and marine life. He spends his days charting the different halls, paying attention to tide patterns and gathering information for the only other living person to haunt this place, a man he calls The Other.

Piranesi by Susanna ClarkeThe Other believes that the secret to accessing an ancient, powerful knowledge lies hidden somewhere in the House. He and Piranesi meet twice a week to share knowledge, their discoveries and the occasional supplies. But one day, he comes to Piranesi with a warning: another person has found access to the House, bearing naught but madness and instability. Piranesi must do everything possible to avoid talking to this mysterious figure he terms 16. But it’s another chance encounter that sets Piranesi on the slow path to the truth, unraveling the mystery of the House and the true reason for his presence in it.

Early on in the book, I got the weird feeling that this was being plotted out like a psychological thriller. While one can imagine this novel as a whole in those terms, it is certainly far more fantastical than your average mystery, a bit like Gormenghast meets House Of Leaves, as re-written by Ann Cleeves. Reading the book, I kept waffling between how much I admired the economy of Susanna Clarke’s language while also wanting just a smidge more description of the House: the Coral Halls sounded especially gorgeous, and I would have liked a little more of that descriptive effort in other rooms. This is not, overall, a lush novel. Like the marble halls of the sprawling House, it is mostly austere.

But it is still an affecting read, mostly due to Piranesi’s discoveries, especially due to what he discovers about himself and how he’s changed over the years. His complicated reactions felt extremely spot-on, almost heralding a new subgenre that we could call psychological fantasy (but probably shouldn’t.) The only thing I really questioned was the subject of ingress and egress. Given James and Matthew’s stories, how was it possible to have been unwillingly trapped in the House? A little more explanation on that subject would have made for a more satisfying read, I feel.

Overall, this was a pretty good novel, tho not as good as Ms Clarke’s earlier works, IMO. I think I might have liked it more if I didn’t read crime novels for a living, where I expect water-tight plotting from this sort of thing. Perhaps I would have been more forgiving if the text had also been more lively, more hot-blooded. It’s cerebral for a reason, but when you apply that sort of intellectualism to fantasy, I rather expect to see all the is dotted and ts crossed.

Hugos-wise, I’m ranking this behind Tamsyn Muir’s Harrow The Ninth and Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun Rising which were both solid to great, if not outright spectacular. Hopefully, one of the other three books left in this category will wow me.

Doug liked it more than I did, enough to warrant two reviews!

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke was published September 15 2020 by Bloomsbury and is available from all good booksellers, including

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/11/04/piranesi-by-susanna-clarke-2/


  1. “Like the marble halls of the sprawling House, it is mostly austere.” This is perfect, and part of what I liked about the book. It’s not a lush House of Usher that has fallen; the House just is.

    Our ballots are likely to be near complements. About a quarter of the way in, I’m annoyed that Harrow’s madness has seemingly erased Gideon, and I don’t like Harrow well enough to immediately plow through and find out what has happened. (Nor do I care enough about the Emperor and his tribulations to be interested in the story for itself.) You and another friend have both said it’s worth going on, but I definitely want to get through the rest of my Hugo reading before continuing.

    Black Sun is lurking in the lower half of my ballot for a reason that parallels your thinking on Piranesi. I thought that Roanhorse changed some of the furniture of conventional fantasy, which is good in and of itself, but not too much beyond that to get me excited. Like how you’ve read enough psychological thrillers that Piranesi didn’t excite you with how it tended in that direction. And the abuse visited on Serapio probably would have put me out of Black Sun for good if I hadn’t been reading it as a voter.

  2. Ohhhh, hey, so I don’t want to spoiler it but I thought it was pretty clear that it isn’t (just) Harrow’s madness but her grief that is erasing Gideon, and this is how she’s compensating for what Gideon did at the end of Book One. She’s still extremely angry that the person who was her best and only friend would do that, and she blames herself for not only being unable to stop Gideon but for benefiting from it as well. But, because she’s a messed up teenager in a perilous situation whose entire upbringing was one of strict self-denial, the only way she knows how to cope is to erase all thought of Gideon entirely, which is why she has so much trouble accessing the powers that she should be using to survive Mithraeum House etc. Maybe I was just unusually attuned to that having been a teenager girl who has also lived through dramatic friend and boarding school things?

    Anyway, I had a lot of sympathy for Harrow, but also I prefer/believe her kind of unreliable narrative vs Piranesi’s. I totally understand you noping out of the abuse narrative in Black Sun Rising: I think the main reason I was okay with it was because Roanhorse portrayed the abuse as obviously bad.

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