I didn’t read anything about Piranesi before starting it, though I was vaguely aware of some reviews and reactions from friends. I’m one of the people who found Clarke’s previous novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, really fascinating — for all that it’s 1,000+ pages long, I ate it up in great big chunks. I wondered if the magic could be repeated, especially in a novel as slim as Piranesi. I’d say it has, and even that I like the worldbuilding of Piranesi even more.
That said, if you didn’t like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, there’s a chance Piranesi will be more for you: though I said the magic is repeated, I mean the magical captivating quality that had me riveted to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Piranesi is rather different in tone and scope, at a quarter of the length. For one thing, it has a relatively cramped cast, made up essentially of four characters, one of whom only appears once, and one of whom doesn’t appear until quite late on. The other people mentioned are all dead, and only tangentially important. Well, unless you consider the House a fifth character.
The House is the most fascinating thing, and I could happily have spent at least another fifty pages visiting the Statues, travelling to far-off Vestibules, and watching the Tides. The whole idea of it, this strange house with the sea in the lower levels and thousands of rooms filled with mysterious Statues — argh, I really loved that part! Piranesi himself (it’s the name used for one of the characters, as well as the title) is rather delightful in his innocent inquiry and his love of the house.
I’m trying not to be spoilery, but this bit talks about the ending: without saying too much about what exactly happens, I found the ending rather sad, because of the change to Piranesi. There was such joy in his exploration of the House, it was really awful to think of that joy being shattered by his discovery of his past. In a way he keeps it, but in another way everything has changed. It makes sense as an ending, and the whole book comes together pretty well… but ouch.
Overall, though, I loved it — and just as with Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, I practically inhaled it.