The sequel to the wonderful Titus Groan. At his christening, Titus, heir to the earldom of Gormenghast (accidentally) ripped the ancient book of ritual and at his earling (aged 2) he blasphemed again by removing sacred objects and casting them into the lake. That congenital rebellion comes to fruition in this book.
It starts by summarising the ghostly demise of key characters from the first book and the mark they have left on Titus. Then it does a similar update of key characters who are still alive, hinting at what is to come. This unusual approach sets the tone for a story that is outwardly about a child growing up in the stiflingly ritualistic world of Gormenghast alongside Steerpike’s plotting to gain power, but is really about death and destruction. “There are always eyes” and “days when the living have no substance and the dead are active” leaving a “deathless repercussion”.
Nevertheless, there is still humour, principally provided by naughty schoolboys (“the boys changed ammunition to paper pellets only after the THIRD death and “a deal of confusion in the hiding of the bodies”!) and eccentric school masters (one “had once made a point of being at least one mental hour ahead of his class... but who had long since decided to pursue knowledge on an equal footing” and another “was pure symbol... even the ingenious system of delegation whereon his greatness rested was itself worked out by another”). Irma Prune also provides plenty of comic mileage (e.g. creating a fake bosom with a hot water bottle and striving to be stylish). As before there are also touches of mystical unreality.
Titus grows up, “suckled on shadows, weaned as it were on webs of ritual”, increasingly restless and rebellious, unloved and longing to break free from the shackles of ceremonies “the significance of which had long been lost to the records”. He runs away to the woods a few times, and each time has an experience that changes him and sets him further adrift from his apparent destiny. In fact the short story, Boy in Darkness, is an account of one such episode, though it is more allegorical than the other Gormenghast stories.
Meanwhile, there is a growing sense of evil in the background, with more deaths (some of them grisly) and ultimately destruction on a Biblical scale.
Overall, this story is very similar to the volume that precedes it, in setting, structure, tone and the extraordinary vividness of the descriptions (“porous shadow-land... not so much a darkness... as something starved for moonbeams.”). The final volume (Titus Alone) is very different.
“There is nowhere else... everything comes to Gormenghast.”
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: