A few years ago, I read John Crowley’s fantasy novel Little, Big and was blown away by it. It was a book which, as Ursula Le Guin put it, “all by itself calls for a redefinition of fantasy”, incorporating as it did family saga, fairyland, historical figures and modern urban life. And wonderful characters. And beautiful prose.
I hadn’t heard of any other books by Crowley before, recently, I picked up a copy of Ægypt, since retitled The Solitudes when the former became the overall title of the tetralogy it begins. Having just finished it, I’m happy to report that Crowley’s very far from being a one-book wonder.
It is, Crowley says in his introduction, “a book made out of other books”, and it centres around an unconventional historian, Pierce Moffett, setting out to write a book about a different kind of history:
Whenever the world turns from what it has been into what it will be, and thus earns a different past and a different future, there is a brief moment when every possible kind of universe, all possible extensions of Being in space and time, are poised on the threshold of becoming, before all but one pass into nonexistence again...then all the other similar disjunctures in time (for there have been several) can become visible too...
The particular “disjuncture” Pierce is most interested in revolves around Giordano Bruno and John Dee, sixteenth century Hermetic philosophers, astrologers and magicians, and around his obsession with the concept of Ægypt, a mystical realm with only a passing connection to the mundane land of Egypt.
This is not an easy book to read, containing as it does extended passages of metaphysical thought, along with entire chapters from the work of a fictional author of historical novels, Fellowes Kraft, whose spiritual journey seems to mirror Pierce’s own. Kraft writes about Bruno, Dee and even a young Will Shakespeare, moving gradually from lively historical romance to an examination of the clash between the old world and the new (which is also the even older) in the sixteenth century.
In the historical sections, we see Dee and his assistant communicating with angels and Bruno being guided by a young man who might be Hermes, but there’s very little overt fantasy in the contemporary chapters. Most of this concerns Pierce’s life, first in New York City, then in a rural region called the Faraway Mountains (I assume these to be fictional, though I’d be fascinated to be proved wrong) where he interacts with a rich array of local characters, some of whom have their own point-of-view scenes. In some ways, the books would work almost entirely as a blend of country life and academia.
Nevertheless, this is unmistakably a fantasy novel, and magic permeates it, even if it’s mostly hidden just under the surface, just as it is for much of Little, Big. Along with Pierce’s lovers and colleagues, along with the inhabitants of the Faraways, The Solitudes is peopled by the scattered inhabitants of Ægypt, the signs of the zodiac, the spirits of the planets, the decans of Hermetic lore, angels, gods and dæmons, and the story’s progress is controlled by the twelve houses of the Moon.
The book’s obsessions remind me a little of Mary Gentle, one of my favourite authors, in particular the Hermetic lore (which features especially in Rats & Gargoyles) and the concept of history’s mutability (the central theme of Ash: A Secret History). The two authors’ approaches, though, are radically different, Gentle incorporating the themes completely into speculative stories, whereas Crowley takes a more academic slant. If I were really pushed to choose one approach over the other, I’d probably go for Gentle, but I’d rather not choose. There’s nothing wrong with loving both apples and oranges.
The Solitudes isn’t a book for light reading: it requires willingness to invest time and thought, to immerse yourself in his characters, his settings, his magic, his gorgeous prose, and not emerge for some time. It also pays to have a dictionary at hand if, like me, you’re the kind of reader who joyfully welcomes the opportunity to expand your vocabulary.
There are three more books in the Ægypt Cycle, and I’m looking forward to losing myself in each one of them, as well as anything else I can find by John Crowley.
I don't have the means to award star ratings here, but it would be the maximum, whatever that is.