Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake book cover
Titus Groan (1946), the first book in the Gormenghast trilogy, is a panoramic depiction of the walled city of Gormenghast and its bizarre inhabitants. The novel opens with the birth of Titus, heir to the throne, and over 500 pages details the first days of his existence seen through the lives of an eclectic handful of characters that are connected to his line or the castle of Gormenghast in some way. Although time is spent describing many characters it is Steerpike, a mysterious youth, who drives the plot as he manipulates his way up the social order.

Many critics believe Titus Groan to be a truly original piece of fantasy work, far from Tolkienesque the work is driven by truly remarkable characters and set in a world that is only a shade away from our own. There are few instances of pure fantasy and for many its style makes Mervyn Peake’s work one of the twentieth century’s key fantasy novels.

For a relatively long novel very little happens and the plot at times lacks any drive or direction, certainly one can feel that Titus Groan is simply an entrĂ©e into the world of Gormenghast, not a novel in it’s own right but clearly the first instalment of a trilogy. Ultimately though, it is the beautiful characterisation and vivid prose that draws readers into the story. Although it is difficult to empathise with the bold, Daliesque characters, who often stray close to caricature, they undoubtedly help to create a hugely atmospheric world.

The novel’s crowning achievement is unquestionably its sumptuous prose, which drifts poetically through the world that Peake has created. However, any novel that is part of a trilogy should be capable of standing independently from the series as a whole; due to its lethargic pace Titus Groan fails to do this and can only really be appreciated as a piece of poetic brilliance - its use of the English language undoubtedly sparkling.

Peake's use of language is wonderful at times, but the overall pacing and general weakness of plot spoiled the book for me. I plan to read the full trilogy and I suspect once I have Titus Groan will sit nicely within that.

Useful Links
Reviews of Titus Groan on Amazon (UK)
TV Adaptaion of The Gormenghast Trilogy on Amazon (UK)

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