Fantasy Novel Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

I’ve heard so many glowing reviews of Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi in the last year, but given my mixed results with literary-leaning novels, I hadn’t found the excuse to give it a read until its nomination for the Hugo Award for Best Novel. And so I approached with a healthy mix of excitement and trepidation 

Although Piranesi does not rely heavily on stunning twists, there is something about it that makes reviewers reticent to reveal plot details. So I entered knowing little except that it involved a seemingly infinite house, and I wasn’t a paragraph in before it seemed my fears were confirmed. Piranesi is written as a series of journal entries—a format that rarely works for me—and the liberal capitalization of nouns suggested a hint of pretension that I find distasteful. 

But it didn’t take long for my outlook to reverse entirely. Because while I don’t typically enjoy novel-length epistolary fiction, I do enjoy exploration, and the journal was the lead’s account of exploring the labyrinthine House, in which he records its dangers, wonders, resources, and other inhabitants. And this exploration sets the stage for the main plot of Piranesi, although it is an exploration less of the place and more of the people, of which he knows fifteen—two living (himself included) and thirteen dead. 

I’ll say no more about the plot details, because part of the fun is seeing the bits of plot unfold. But this fun does not consist in being surprised or left aghast at unexpected happenings. In contrast, this is one of those rare books (or at least rare contemporary books) where the reader is given information that they are meant to understand before the characters. So the reader stays a step ahead of the main character, and then gets to watch as he puts together the pieces. This unusual structure could make those moments of ignorance feel deeply frustrating or the reveals feel like playing out the string. But it works with the right central character, and the lead of Piranesi has just the right combination of likability and sharp-wittedness to make his discoveries a genuine joy. While his areas of ignorance weigh more heavily, his relentless honesty and commitment call to mind Rowan of The Steerswoman, a favorite of mine that uses a similar structural device. 

The lead of Piranesi, in addition to being likable, is deeply foreign to a contemporary reader. He places no great import on naming, allowing his only friend to call him Piranesi—not his actual name—while calling himself a Child of the House and calling said friend the Other. The capitalization I’d worried would feel pretentious instead serves to convey this mindset where a thing’s place in the world is much weightier than its linguistic tag. 

Piranesi also fills a relatively unusual niche as a full-length novel that comes in under 250 pages. That length gives enough space to establish the meandering feeling of the lead’s exploration of the House, while also moving the plot quickly enough that his discoveries do not lag far enough behind the reader to become frustrating. This produces a quiet, focused story that contrasts with so many sprawling fantasy epics, one that neither drags too long nor feels especially hurried.

There’s no singular moment in Piranesi that will drop a reader’s jaw, but it has a likable lead, an interesting setting, and a well-paced plot with no scene out of place. It’s the best novel I’ve read in months and will definitely be in contention for my Hugo vote this year. 

Recommended if you like: epistolary novels, short and quiet stories, likable leads with less information than the audience, fresh settings. 

Can I use it for Bingo? I believe it will be my Comfort Read, but it would also serve for Book Club or First Person. 

Overall rating: 18 of Tar Vol’s 20. Five stars on Goodreads. 

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