The 2021 Hugo Nominees: 'Piranesi' by Susanna Clarke Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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The 2021 Hugo Nominees: 'Piranesi' by Susanna Clarke Review

Alexander Wallace feels the magic of Piranesi.
Susanna Clarke is famous among book lovers, more than anything else, for her mammoth historical fantasy novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. It’s a long book, written in faux eighteenth-century prose that can be a tad hard to parse at times. It is, in any case, what rightly brought her to fame. However, between that doorstopper and her collection of short stories, she wasn’t exactly prolific. We are then confronted with her new novel, Piranesi, on the ballot for this year’s Hugo awards.

Piranesi is a breeze of a novel, just shy of three hundred pages, unlike her previous work; I read it within twenty-four hours. You will finish this book without a soreness in your hands. Much like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Piranesi involves a system of magic that interacts with the real world, although this book is much closer to current times.

That world is a strikingly original one: a world that is essentially a massive mansion, with neverending halls that play host to a strikingly varied assortment of statuary, each one unique. The very premise feels like something out of the work of Italo Calvino or Jorge Luis Borges more than anything in the mainstream fantasy genre. It is a house that occasionally floods, and there are also a host of strange birds that visit from time to time. It feels esoteric and ‘scholarly,’ if that makes any sense, but Clarke imbues the premise with a believable human core.

That core is Piranesi, the titular character, who has never known a world beyond the House (as he calls it). He is familiar with the layout of a good deal of the house (starting from a certain point), the locations of various statues, and, most grimly, the location of a number of skeletons of previous residents of the house. Piranesi’s sole compassion is the man he calls the Other, who works, sometimes with Piranesi, to find arcane ‘knowledge’ of somewhat unclear nature.

The book is written with Clarke’s meticulous care to characterization. There is a lot of pain in this book, and a lot of fear. In Piranesi, it is the fear that this world, the only one he has ever known, is not what it seems. It would spoil too much to tell you, but he is far from the only character to feel that way. Piranesi also has shades of the eighteenth century language that her last novel was written in, with capitalized nouns all over the page.

Piranesi is an odd novel, without question, but Clarke has never been content with being pedestrian. This is a triumphantly weird book, one that is totally different from Tolkienesque common fantasy. It is mindbending, heartfelt, and worthy of its Hugo nomination.

The 2021 Hugo Nominees: Reviews
'Finna' by Nino Cipri
'Ring Shout' by P. Djèlí Clark
'Upright Women Wanted' by Sarah Gailey
'Come Tumbling Down' by Seanan McGuire
'Riot Baby' by Tochi Onyebuchi
'The Empress of Salt and Fortune' by Nghi Vo

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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