Considering John Crawley


1981 was a fantastic year for imaginative fiction. Not only was this the year Gene Wolfe published The Shadow of the Torturer, the first volume of his four book series The Book of The New Sun, but it also saw the appearance of Little, Big, John Crowley’s fourth novel and a landmark work. Like The Shadow of the Torturer, Little, Big was a work that transformed its author, that marked Crowley, like Wolfe, as a writer who had suddenly leapt into the first rank of authors whose work was immensely subtle, powerful and influential.
I’ve been collecting Crowley’s work since Little, Big, though it rarely if ever is published in the UK. Indeed, I’ve recently acquired, though not yet read, his most recent book, Four Freedoms, an historical fiction set during the Second World War that represents a departure from his usual field. It was published in 2009, so the fact that I only found out about it this year demonstrates how little publicised Crowley’s work is over here.
As a preliminary to reading that, I’ve decided to re-read all of Crowley’s works and, as I have done so previously, write about the books that have made his name.
Crowley, an academic and a documentary film writer outside of his career in books, has hardly been prolific: in the thirty years since Little, Big, he has published only seven novels including Four Freedoms, and his writing career has been dominated by the four volume Ægypt series, which itself took twenty years to complete.
Indeed, his most prolific period was in the years leading up to his breakthrough novel, with three nominally SF novels published between 1975 and 1979.
The last of these, Engine Summer was the only book by Crowley that I had read before Little, Big: I had enjoyed it, been intrigued by it, but it could not hold a candle to ‘a book that, all by itself, calls for a complete redefinition of fantasy’, as Ursula le Guin famously reacted to Little, Big.
Crowley may not have written often but, from 1981 onwards, what he has written demands thought. This is not going to be a quick process.

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