The Malacia Tapestry

The Malacia Tapestry - Brian Aldiss This book shouldn’t work. And sometimes it doesn’t. It has issues with bloat and pacing and the plot on occasion meanders, though this latter is mainly due to the picaresque nature of the tale itself, so is perhaps not really a fault. I’m generally not a fan of the picaresque, but this novel has so many great scenes, a handful of great characters, and enough vibrant atmosphere that it has managed to find a place of deep affection in my heart at the same time that it doesn’t quite work for me.

_The Malacia Tapestry_ holds a central place for me in a genre I think ought to be called “urban fantasy” since that’s really what it is: fantasy primarily concerned with the urban landscape and its unique issues and characteristics (other examples would include [b:Thunderer|2319381|Thunderer|Felix Gilman||2325901], [b:Perdido Street Station|68494|Perdido Street Station (New Crobuzon, #1)|China Miéville||3221410], and Jeff VanderMeers’ “Ambergris” books). Unfortunately that label has already been manhandled away and seems to apply to fantasy books in a modern setting which usually have to do with hip, magical private eyes having sex with vampires and werewolves. Anyway….Aldiss’ tome is set in a parallel universe where it appears that humans have evolved from dinosaurs, which they still keep as pets and takes place in the environs of the city of Malacia, a location very much modelled on a Renaissance Italian city-state. Our main character is Perian de Chirolo, an unemployed actor, cad and all-around party-boy who drifts aimlessly from one situation to another in search of money, sex, and amusement (not necessarily in that order). As Perian’s misadventures progress he finds himself pulled into a political conspiracy and ultimate danger by the twin motivations of money and love.

We have a central focus for the story in the character of Perian and he is certainly (I think at least) a likable rogue even when he shows us his less than admirable side. He grows as the story progresses and learns some valuable lessons about both love and realpolitik from the school of hard knocks. From being a vain, self-absorbed dilettante Perian becomes a wounded martyr for both love and politics. Despite this central focus, the story can still seem somewhat scattershot due to the meandering plot and several points where it slows down dramatically. For me the real draw of this novel lies in two main areas: the wonderful prose Aldiss uses in building the city of Malacia for the reader, and the sparkle of several of the characters. I was immediately plunged into the world of Malacia upon reading:

Smoke was drifting through my high window, obscuring the light. Something was added to the usual aromas of Stary Most. Among the flavours of freshcut timber, spices, cooking, gutters, and the incense from the corner wizard, Throat Dark, floated the smell of wood-smoke. Perhaps the sawdust-seller had set fire to his load again. Going to my casement, I looked down into the street, which was more crowded than usual for this hour of day. The gongfermors and their carts had disappeared, but the Street of the Wood Carvers was jostling with early traffic, including among its habitual denizens a number of porters, beggars, and general hangers-on; they were doing their best either to impede or to further the progress of six burly orientals, all wearing turbans, all accompanied by lizard-boys bearing canopies over them — the latter intended as much to provide distinction as shade, since the summer sun had little force as yet. The smoke was rising from the sweepings of an ash-merchant, busily burning the street's rubbish. One good noseful of it and I withdrew my head.
If you do not feel yourself immersed in the world of Malacia after that, and wish to plumb its depths and walk its streets, then I don’t know if there is much else that I can say.

Perian himself, who tells us his tale in candid first person, is a charming rogue. He has a discerning eye, though it does seem to restrict itself to surfaces (a fact he will grow to rue as the story progresses). He introduces his best friend thusly:
We strolled along in good humour. His doublet, I thought, was not a shade of green to be greatly excited about; it made him look too much the player. Yet Guy de Lambant was a handsome fellow enough. He had a dark, quick eye and eyebrows as sharp and witty as his tongue could be. He was sturdily built, and walked with quite a swagger when he remembered to do so. As an actor he was effective, it had to be admitted, although he lacked my dedication. His character was all one could wish for in a friend: amusing, idle, vain and dissolute, ready for any mischief. The two of us were always cheerful when together, as many ladies of Malacia would vouch.
The mysterious and paranoid Otto Bengtsohn, half crackpot inventor and half crackpot radical, is another wonderfully painted character:
'Excuse me, I was not about to ask for favours but to offer one.' He pulled the jacket about him with dignity, cuddling his box for greater comfort. 'My name, young sir, is called Otto Bengtsohn. I am not from Malacia but from Tolkhorm at the north, from which particular adversities what afflict the poor and make their lives a curse have drove me since some years. My belief is that only the poor will help the poor. Accordingly, I wish for to offer you work, if you are free.'

The long and the short of it is that on a lark Perian agrees to work for Bengtsohn who is attempting to perfect the artistic process for his mysterious zahnoscope. The fact that a beautiful noblewoman is involved certainly doesn’t dissuade Perian from jumping in with both feet. It is here that his problems begin. Malacia is a city that has outlawed all change and Bengtsohn is a man adamant to bring change about. Caught in the middle, Perian is bound for catastrophe. Perian’s illusions, about both himself and others, are about to be shattered and that’s never a painless process, however necessary it may be. For the majority of Aldiss’ prose and his characterization of both the city and its inhabitants I give the book four stars, for the bloat and meandering that too often takes us off track I have to remove at least one.

If you like atmosphere, intrigue, and mannered prose (and aren’t too put out by some slow pacing), then I recommend giving this book a try.