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