Titus Groan and Gormenghast are two of my ten favourite books (reviewed on my Favourites shelf), but despite some wonderful language, I cannot love this one, intriguing as it is. China Miéville argued (in a lecture at the British Library 11th June 2011) that this volume recasts the previous two and because I had just finished reading Maeve Gilmore's [b:Titus Awakes|9748585|Titus Awakes The Lost Book of Gormenghast (Gormenghast, #4)|Maeve Gilmore|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1345022698s/9748585.jpg|14637770], I was able to see his point.
In this, Titus, seventy-seventh earl of Gormenghast is 22 and wandering unknown lands. He is invariably being rescued, nursed or running away, especially by/from Muzzlehatch and Juno, though I’m never convinced as to why they go to such lengths for him. It’s all rather repetitive, especially when other characters start running away too!
This story is more dream-like than the earlier volumes: weird, disjointed, implausible, e.g. people at a party initially looking like animals, Muzzlehatch’s extraordinary driving technique (lying on his side), watching and being watched (though the last of those applies just as much to the other books). There are fewer recurring characters (and none from the earlier books, save Titus and Gormenghast)
It’s a totally different milieu and style (written when Parkinson's disease was exerting its toll on Peake, though he didn't realise at the time). The other two have a wonderfully vivid sense of place (even though we don’t know where it is), but are intriguingly vague about the time period; this book is the other way round. It is explicitly in modern times, as cars and aeroplanes are mentioned, though there is still a distinct old world feel to it (including a Dickensian underclass), which sits oddly with futuristic floating electronic spying devices and death rays. Clearly, this is meant to reflect Titus' situation: adrift, without papers, in a strange country, where no one has ever heard of Gormenghast. In fact it’s so effective that even though this world is more akin to ours, after two rich volumes set in Gormenghast, the reader is almost as disorientated by this new world as Titus.
Peake's widow's memoir, "A World Away" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/487563887) explains this it was "more difficult to be outside the world which had been created as a world within a world, than to be in a world which was probably closer to this one, and yet alien."
It is a strange hybrid: Dickensian characters living Under-River; a socialite’s party more like Wodehouse, Wilde or Waugh ("What is the point of being married if one always bumps into one's wife?"); a comic court scene more like Alice in Wonderland or Wind in the Willows (though the court is a little like Gormenghast: all symbol and procedure), and a few, brief and unexpected entries for the literary bad sex award ("his cock trembled like a harp string"). Overall, it is perhaps most like dystopian sci fi: a bemused outsider is treated as a mad and bad interloper by all-seeing, all-knowing authorities and where a rough underclass survives literally underneath the main cities, which makes me wonder if I would enjoy it more as a standalone book with no references to Gormenghast or the Groans.
Each time I read it, I am more baffled than the last.
Despite that, there are still glimpses of Peake's inimitable use of language: “merest wisp of a man... his presence was a kind of subtraction. He was nondescript to the point of embarrassment”; “his responses to her magnetism grew vaguer... he longed to be alone again... alone to wander listless through the sunbeams”; “head after head in long lines, thick and multitudinous and cohesive as grains of honey-coloured sugar, each grain a face... a delirium of heads: an endless profligacy.”, and an extraordinary simile “I don’t like this place one little bit. My thighs are as wet as turbots.”!
A selection of my favourite quotes are here: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/310390629
All my Peake/Gormenghast reviews now have their own shelf: