Book Review: Daybreak on a Different Mountain, Colin Greenland (1984)

(Steve Weston’s cover for the 1st edition)

4/5 (Good)

Fantasy and science fiction that deploys geographical and urban allegory—Italo Calvino-esque cities balanced over chasms, the skeletons of urban human interactions measured out in string, etc.*—relentlessly intrigues. In John Crowley’s The Deep (1975), the world as chessboard is perched on top of a pillar with endlessness on all sides. In Garry Kilworth’s Cloudrock (1988), two tribes eek out their existence on a levitating rock surrounded by poisonous gasses. Terry Carr’s Cirque (1977) posits a city next to an abyss out of which crawls a tentacled beast…. Sculpted urban and geographic artifice can, in the hands of an adept author, create meaning-rich texts as characters inscribe new patterns on the landscapes they traverse.

There is something so delightfully murky about Colin Greenland’s Daybreak on a Different Mountain (1984), with its walled city and landscape defined in the language of divine interactions of the distant past, as it refuses to operate in a clear cut fashion. Are the characters creating the physical changes in the landscape? Or, are they societal changes? Are they actually playing roles predetermined by prophecy and myth? Or, are those legends greater truths whose patterns are played out irregardless of divine presence?

Colin Greenland (1954-), a trained academic who received a PhD on the topic of Michael Moorcock and New Wave SF*, manages to create an original fantasy vision heavily inspired by his area of study.

Brief Analysis/Plot Summary

The city of Thryn is a cesspool of decay surrounded by an “impenetrable” wall. In an advanced state of entropy, Thryn’s temples lay vacant, its last priestess chants alone, disease and deformity run unchecked, the poor spend their days huddled in lines at food dispensaries, its lords retreat into the literary adventures of yore while others throw all morality to the wind and engage in perverse activities. The buildings of government lay empty—“there aren’t any important things left to discuss” (7)—the grand halls are now an expanse of hovels….

In this Gormenghast-like crumbling ruin, fragments of a prophecy still remain–the story of the God Gomast, who will lead his people from the corruption of the surrounding marsh, and the Cirnex, who awaits the coming of Gomast (5). The Cirnex “comes in dreams and in the dark places of the city” (14), and the last Previs (priestess) wanders from cellar to cellar looking for him.

“She had haunted the dark places, combed the twilight, and, though she could never remember her dreams, the former temple-girl and the rivergateman had both witnessed her singing the ritual welcome song. He was at hand. The long story was drawing to an end” (19).

The narrative focuses on two disparate characters. The indecisive Dubilier, a lord and failed author, who grows increasingly distant from his lover, Ali. And the morally disgraceful Lupio, another lord who spends his time destroying the tattered fragments of the past and pedophilic acts with his servant boys… Greenland’s equation of homosexuality with pedophilia is a troubling one. Lupio’s actions are tend to be snickered about by characters in the book rather than outright condemned (I am not sure Dubilier ever learns about the details of Lupio’s past).

The Previs soon identifies Lupio with the Cirnex and waves of revolutionary furor wreck the city. Lupio, desperate to escape the divine responsibilities placed on his head which he doesn’t believe anyway, and Dubilier, desperate to escape the failure of his relationship, flee Thryn…. Their voyages take them along the predetermined path of the Gomath and the Cirnex, through an array of fascinating societies and locals–from the communal Grach who appear to act in unison to the matrilineal lake people who have no conception of ownership and who birth children in the dark recess of the woods with the aid of vaguely humanoid forest dwellers.

When they return to Thryn, the city lays mostly destroyed by revolution. But not one inspired by the promise of Gomath but rather the growing resentment of the poor who overthrow their decadent lords. Is rebirth possible amongst the wreckage?

Final Thoughts

What elevates Daybreak on a Different Mountain above others of its ilk, is Greenland’s refusal to provide easy answers. Is Dubilier’s revelation on his voyage a divinely inspired mystical experience or rather the epiphany of an ordinary man? Greenland is careful to leave magic entirely out of his story—while societies encountered by the travelers, for example the Grach, seem to suggest connection with the land that transcends nature, it could always be a matter of interpretation. While George Alec Effinger’s What Entropy Means to Me (1972) revels playfully in its destruction of fantasy tropes, Greenland is content to tell an evocative story focused on dialogue and redolent description (the matrilineal people of the lake in their carved wood towns, the strange forest dwellers who help the lake people give birth, etc.). This is not an action-driven story—this is a restrained rumination on patterns and rebirth.

I plan on tracking down the two subsequent novels in the Daybreak sequence: The Hour of the Thin Ox (1987) and Other Voices (1988). SF Encyclopedia claims the sequels “gradually demonstrated a sharpening, meticulously intelligent, cold, quiet narrative voice, and plots which carefully picked at some of the unthinking assumptions, general to Fantasy, about war and peace, prejudice and love” (full entry here).  If the impressive Daybreak on a Different Mountain is the starting point, I am eager to see his maturing voice.

Although I found John Crowley’s The Deep (1975) a superior novel, I suggest fans of Crowley’s early work will enjoy this one—both utilize a sculpted allegorical landscape and share an obsession with patterns and decay.

Recommended for fans of entropic and experimental fantasy that isn’t cut from the Tolkein cloth. There are no elves, magic, or powerful villains….


* I’m referencing Calvino’s spectacular collection of allegorical city ruminations Invisible Cities (1972). Worth tracking down!

* The title of his PhD thesis–The Entropy Exhibition: Michael Moorcock and the British ‘New Wave’ in Science Fiction (1983)

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8 thoughts on “Book Review: Daybreak on a Different Mountain, Colin Greenland (1984)

    • This is a shockingly unknown book (5 ratings on Goodreads). It’s not at the John Crowley level of ruminative fantasy, but’s downright fascinating. But yes, I see the Peake influence far more than a Moorcock influence (that said I haven’t read much of Moorcock’s fantasy).

  1. Sounds right up my alley! Play with landscape resonates with me very deeply and is one of my favorite things about fantasy. Anything that draws positive comparisons with both Invisible Cities and Gormenghast has to be on my list! I’ll be back to let you know how I liked it!

  2. The summary reminds me of the Strugatsky’s “The Doomed City” in many ways. I think you would like that a lot, if you isn’t already familiar with it.

  3. Yes, according to the English edition I have (Chicago Review Press, 2016) they finished it in 1972, but it wasn’t released until 1989.
    It’s not fantasy in any way, but the setting (an experimental “utopian” city placed between a chasm, a wall and an endless wasteland of decaying ruins), and the uncertainty of what the goal and meaning (and reality) of the whole thing is, seems related.
    A very bleak geographical and urban allegory – most obviously of the soviet union, but also of utopian ideals in general.

    • That sounds absolutely spectacular. I find the classification of “fantasy” sometimes quite problematic — take for example, this novel. There’s no magic, everything is humanoid, this could be an alternate Earth (although there are no elements that directly link it to our Earth)…. Is it fantasy?

      I remembered why The Doomed City sounded so familiar… I was offered a review copy but declined. I have trouble sticking to schedules and making my reading anything other than a for my own relaxation activity — that said, I’ll add it to my “to acquire” list.

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