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)

(Les Edwards’ cover for the 1987 edition)

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

For more reviews consult the INDEX

34 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…

    • 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).

      • 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”.

    • “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.

      • 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.

      • 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).

      • 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.

      • 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.

      • 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!

  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.
    Rajani, India

    • 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.

  5. I’ll be adding this one to my long ‘to read’ list. Is it my imagination or does John Cayea’s cover make anyone think of Ian Miller’s take on Ghormenghast?

    • Perhaps if the castle itself were in an advanced state of decay — hah

      Absolutely the best of the “sculpted landscape” fantasy novels I’ve encountered in a while — the entire novel feels like a game a chess, everything is planned, patterns are repeated (and expected), moves are made…. a new piece is introduced. A gorgeous book in so many ways.

  6. You say “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. ” and “They are content to repeat the same empty yet impassioned motions” which sounds almost robotic as if somewhere along the way the populace lost their humanity (or most of it). These “chess-game” themed works (Game of Thromes) never quite appealed to me p[robably due to the nature of me not being great at strategy or puzzle solving. Not that I don’t think that’s a bad thing or to have thoughts in regards to motivation but too much spider-web and I get lost and loose interest. Still the two other works (Cirque & Daybreak on a Different Mountain) seem to apprach this from different directions.

    • In this particular instance it’s perhaps more a game that has been played in the same manner ad infinitum — and with the introduction of a new piece, a conceptual lurch occurs. So yeah, the actual game elements (and the moves) are not as interesting as the overarching metaphor.

    • In fantasy worldscapes I find the game metaphor particularly apt — the genre is so driven by archetypes replaying identical plots (which, in itself, isn’t a bad thing)!

  7. One note about THE DEEP — the political situation quite noticeably reflects England in the 14th and 15th centuries to me. I thought Young Harrah — or maybe it was Red Senden’s Son — the one who had a homosexual lover — was perhaps based in Edward II, though as I recall Crowley said that while that may have figured to some degree, he modeled it (not precisely “modeled”, to be sure) on the time of Edward IV. (So — a comparison of THE DEEP with R. Garcia y Robertson’s unfinished time travel series beginning with KNIGHT ERRANT? Eh? Don’t think Robertson, enjoy his work as I do, would come out well, though of course he was doing something much different.)

    • I’m a medievalist myself (PhD in 13th century France) and deliberately tried to avoid making parallels (I don’t like fiction too overtly about the middle ages! haha). But yes, I see that as a distinct and fascinating possibility but one I avoided pursuing.

      • By the way — Crowley being I think my single favorite living writer of SF/Fantasy — I should highly recommend ENGINE SUMMER, one of my very favorite SF novels ever. I might also recommend the (nominally) non-SF novel THE TRANSLATOR. And KA of course!

        I’ve reviewed all three of those on my blog, but I’ll not post links unless you want!

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