At first glance, the title and table of contents for this book make it look like a set of disparate fantasy stories in a shared setting, but it is in fact an integrated novel. Each “Tale of” people and doings in Nevèrÿon ends up linked to the others on multiple levels, and all of them take place over roughly a single generation.
This fantasy is imaginative, but far less “fantastic” than most. There are no supernatural elements, no storybook giants or fairies.* If Tolkien’s Middle Earth was a step closer to our world than Dunsany’s Pegāna, Delany’s Nevèrÿon is a considerable stroll in our direction. I was a little puzzled by the characterization of this book in the appended note on the author as “sword and sorcery,” since there is certainly no sorcery in it at all. But on reflection, it does represent a new turn for the sort of fabulous prehistory supplied by Robert E. Howard’s seminal stories of that genre, and I can easily imagine that Delany was responding to them (among other fictions and factualities) when writing Nevèrÿon.
The appendix (“Some Informal Remarks on the Intermodal Calculus, Part Three,” alluding to the appendices of his prior science fiction novel Triton) summarizes some fictional scholarship to place Nevèrÿon in our actual (pre-)history, via the study of the apocryphal Culhar’ Text. The effect of this retroactive framing–in combination with the philosophical motifs of the main text–is positively vertiginous.
The epigrams for the individual tales are drawn from post-structuralist philosophy, while the book as a whole is paradoxically concerned with the imagined origins of cultural systems: language, money, gender roles, slavery, politics, and so on. There are nested stories and digressions that highlight these concerns, but the characters of the general narrative are unusual and vivid, and the setting is carefully developed, so that the book doesn’t degenerate into a string of deconstructivist parables.
Those chiefly seeking escapism from their fantasy reading should avoid this book, while philosophical readers will find much to enjoy in it.
* I realized on my return to this review that the key characters Gorgik and Small Sarg might be read as a “giant” and a “fairy” respectively. But not in the customary fantasy sense.