Book Review: The Deep, John Crowley (1975)

(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1976 edition)

4.5/5 (Very Good)

The Deep (1975) was John Crowley’s first published novel and his first of three SF works from the 70s (The Deep, Beasts, Engine Summer).  He is best known for Engine Summer (1979) and his complex/literary fantasy — Little, Big (1981) and the Ægypt sequence (1987-2007).  In the two novels of his I’ve read (the other is Beasts), Crowley’s prose is characterized by an almost icy detachment, an adept construction of unusual images, and dialogue that says only what is needed.

The Deep deploys, in minimalistic fashion, the standard tropes of the fantasy genre mixed with distinctly SF elements: namely, an android visitor whose blood “was alive — it flowed  in tiny swirls ever, like oil in alcohol, but finer, blue within crimson” (1).  The world itself is fashioned like a game.  The players are arrayed across the surfaces of a pillar that rises upward and is surrounded by the eponymous chasm, the Deep.  The characters move across the landscape in the methodically-structured dance of a game — each action reeks of cyclical timelessness, endlessly played and replayed, played and replayed.  The being that fashions such choreographed destruction clutches the cosmic pillar — a re-imagined Yggdrasil — from below, wreathed in the deep, twined like the Norse serpent Nidhogg, the Hateful Striker.

Everyone besides the Visitor seems aware that their parts have been played again and again.  They are content to repeat the same empty yet impassioned motions.  They are content to strive for glory knowing  that once the balance is askew the Just will set them aright — with the Gun.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

The novel begins with the discovery of the android Visitor, who is “neither male nor female,” by two Endwives, who care for the wounded and the dead caused by the endless struggles between the Reds and the Blacks.  The society on the pillar is feudal in nature.  The Blacks and the Reds, called the Protectors, evoke old claims for the throne in continuous back-and-forth maneuvering for the ear of the king and even the throne itself.  The Just “protect” the common Folk by assassinating key players who are selected by lot by their sexless and mysterious leader, the Neither-nor.

The other power are the Grays who arbitrate the law, collate knowledge, and slowly uncover obscured carvings in their indomitable keep that illustrate the cyclical workings of the world: “crowned men with red tears running from their eyes held hands as children’s cutouts do, but each twisted in a different attitude […]  Behind and around them, gripping them like lovers, were black figures, obscure, demons or ghosts.  Each crown had burning within it a fire, and the grinning black things tore tongue and organs from this king and with them fed the fire burning in the crown of that one, tore that one’s body to feed the fire burning in this one’s crown, and so on around, demon and king, like a tortured circle dance” (30).

Soon the Visitor, who relearns speech from the Endwives, is discovered by Falcounred, a lesser noble who owes his allegiance to  Redhand.  The Visitor is exposed to the complex machinations of the Blacks and Reds — Crowley bases their conflict on events from the English War of the Roses.  The exact lineages, figures, battles — although discussed at length — are not the main movements of the plot.  Rather, the Visitor, as he experiences more of the world in the employ of the Reds, soon learns his origins and purpose.

Final Thoughts

I found the sculptured landscape — the plain called the Drumskin, where the battles are waged; the lip that surrounds the edge of the word; the circular lake surrounded by mountains whose single island contains the residence of the King; the increasing decay that inundates the landscape as one moves outward towards the edge; the deep abyss that surrounds the pillar; the movement of the stars — incredibly evocative.  The reader watches the action unfold below, like the hypnotized audience of a chess game.  But there is only one player… The Leviathan wrapped around the pillar.   The Visitor, initially ignorant of the world, is a cypher for the reader who slowly learns the workings of the board.

For fans of literary fantasy and SF.  Crowley’s early visions are not to be missed.  Perhaps not as intriguing or as complex as BeastsThe Deep will transfix the diligent reader.

(John Cayea’s cover for the 1975 edition)

(Joe Petagno’s cover for the 1977 edition)

(Yvonne Gilbert’s cover for the 1984 edition)

(Uncredited cover for the 1987 edition)

(Eamon O’Donaghue’s cover for the 2013 edition)

For more reviews consult the INDEX

22 thoughts on “Book Review: The Deep, John Crowley (1975)”

  1. Thanks for the review. It only makes me want to seek out Crowley all the more. To date his books have not often been re-printed, and thus can be difficult to find. (A cheap version of Little, Big is not often existent.) So looking through your covers (and then checking Gollancz’s website), it’s good to see both The Deep and Engine Summer are being re-printed as part of the SF Masterworks series in 2013. Based on the esteem he receives from the literary crowd, any fading attention on his work that can be re-focused seems a good omen…

    1. Crowley’s intense/icy detachment will be off-putting to some readers… It took me quite a while to appreciate Beasts (which I think is the better novel of the two of his I’ve read). I had such difficulty writing the review for Beasts due to my indecision on whether I liked it or not that I deleted what I had wrote and waited for a good three months before returning to it… And while writing I teased out what I loved so much about the work.

      The Deep was rather easier to parse out….

      But yes, I’m very pleased at the SF Masterworks series is republishing his masterpieces (although, doesn’t seem like they’ve put Beasts inline to be released yet).

      1. He is someone different and superior though.I don’t think that can be ignored,and would have given more sense to the fussy drama.

        “Engine Summer” has been recently published by Gollancz sf classics,but I found to be a readable,but moody,self conscious piece of shrubbery,again inferior to “Beasts”.

    2. “The Deep” was an atmospheric and compelling novel,but it seemed to have a vague purpose.The role and origin of “the visitor”,who was supposed to be a key player in the book,is neither extrapolated or explained properly,and it all just seems to fade out in the end in a meaningless fog.

      His next novel,”Beasts” is a far superior piece,and his rivals,Dick,LeGuin,Wolfe,Ballard,ect,have written much better books.As a first novel though,it was a very good start.

      1. I have a review of Beasts linked in the review. I don’t think that “The Visitor” exact providence needs to be explained, he’s a rogue player introduced onto the board…

        But yes, I found Beasts superior. I need to find a copy of Engine Summer.

      2. Now that I think about it, I found Beasts equally vague — what is this new world? Why is Leo being manipulated? But it is this delightful allegorical bent, the spaces and implied moments in the narrative that set the Crowley novels I’ve read apart.

  2. The Deep was the first novel by John Crowley that I read, and I’ve been a fan of his ever since. As far as I’m concerned he is one of the most underrated writers of our time, and not just in the SFF genre – which he left mostly behind with Aegypt in favour of his own, unique style of magical realism.

    I think most, if not all, of his books are available as e-books – Beasts definitely is, in the SF Gateway series from Gollancz (who are also publishing the SF Masterworks).

    1. Oh ebooks — no thanks 😉 (I think we’ve had this debate before — hehe).

      I do plan on finding a copy of Engine Summer — I’ll probably get to his 80s (and later) novels eventually.

      1. I was reluctant for the longest time myself before I finally saw the light, so there is still hope for you. 😛 But alternatively, there is also an omnibus of his first three novels, Otherwise, that appears to still be available.

      2. I think you win the e-book debate this round as I don’t believe The Deep has been “digitized” (or whatever they call it) yet, at least not as a standalone.

        Big fan of Crowley, even when I’m left wondering how I feel about what I’ve just read. Maybe especially then. Novelties and Souvenirs, his short work collection, is great too.

      1. The Great Work of Time was very good; it’s in his collection, Novelty, and I also liked the other 3 pieces in it.

        Engine Summer came out before Little, Big but from memory of an interview I read at the time, he worked on both books alternately, switching when he wanted to take a break from one or the other. Given the huge difference in length, this may not have applied to the whole time span of writing Little, Big though!
        And now, reading your review, you’ve reminded me that it’s probably about time I finally read v3 of his Aegypt quartet. It’s languished unread on my shelves for 16 years now!

        1. “Little Big” I found to be a long and tiresome tome,no matter how brilliant it was.It was really a number of books,that would have been better I think published in volumes.”Engine Summer” was a more compact novel that I found much better.Haven’t read “Aegypt”.

  3. Respected Joachim,
    I’m a M. Phil. student, I have read y’r view about John Crowley’s THE DEEP and want to include in my dissertation, so please send me details about this reference.
    Regards,
    Rajani, India

    1. As a PhD student myself I know that a review written in a non-scholarly environment — my personal SF review blog — by a non-SF scholar might not be the best source. I’m not sure exactly how you cite review blogs… But, definitely use my pseudonym Joachim Boaz, the date of the review, the title, the webpage address.

  4. The premise of “Beasts” was fully explained and realized.It had an open clarity and purpose.

    I feel sure that Orwell’s “Animal Farm” was an influence.

      1. Yes well,I wrote that two and a half years ago.I would probably have said differently now,so you might be right.”The Deep” was a very good dubut novel by an author of speculative fiction with a distinctive voice,but I’d liked to have known more “the visitor”.

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