All this is from memory, so some stuff is likely incorrect:

I read a first volume of a trilogy, now more than 20 years ago. On the back it was praised as the Tolkien who didn't need vast landscapes.

The story is about a castle and a noble family, where somehow an outsider, a real outcast, gets the opportunity to squeeze himself in. The father is some sort of king; the whole story all takes place in his castle. The first book ends with a separate building, the library, being burned down to ashes. It could be this was needed to cover up a murder.

It is hard to give details, as I somehow mostly remember the weird atmosphere, with a main character that is definitely not 100% likeable. He is continuously planning, treating the whole family as pawns in a strategy game to ensure he can stay in the castle and enlarge his importance.

Does anybody have the faintest idea who the writer would be and what the title of that trilogy would be? (If so, I'd be impressed and verrry grateful.)

  • 2
    Hi, welcome to SF&F. Do you recall any details of the cover? What role did the main character take in the castle, and how did it give him power? (e.g. advisor, fake noble, wizard/magician, seer, etc.?) Do you remember any other important characters?
    – DavidW
    Commented May 31, 2021 at 15:52
  • I honestly didn't know any more. Besides, I read a translation, so likely the cover was completely different from the original. I forgot to mention that indeed no memorable magic occurred: it as all intrigue.
    – parvus
    Commented May 31, 2021 at 19:46
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    That's a well-titled question. I was pretty certain before even reading the body. I must re-read it. Fun fact (for me at least): Mervyn Peake went to the same school I did, and it inspired some of the description of the castle, so I can picture some scenes better than most.
    – Chris H
    Commented Jun 1, 2021 at 13:20
  • If you're the only putatively sane one, how do you know that you're not the crazy one?
    – RonJohn
    Commented Jun 1, 2021 at 16:50
  • @RonJohn your name is 'Wonko'
    – mcalex
    Commented Jun 2, 2021 at 4:11

2 Answers 2


Could this be the first novel in the Gormenghast series, Titus Groan? According to Wikipedia,

Although the first two instalments do not contain any overtly fantastical elements, Gormenghast is almost unanimously categorised as fantasy because of the atmosphere and pseudo-medieval setting. The series has received widespread acclaim from the speculative fiction community and mainstream literary critics — Harold Bloom argues that it is a more accomplished work than the contemporary and better-known The Lord of the Rings.

The book is set in the huge castle of Gormenghast, a vast landscape of crumbling towers and ivy-filled quadrangles that has for centuries been the hereditary residence of the Groan family and with them a legion of servants. The Groan family is headed by Lord Sepulchrave, the seventy-sixth Earl of Groan.

At the beginning of the novel, two agents of change are introduced into the stagnant society of Gormenghast. [...] The second is Steerpike, a ruthlessly ambitious kitchen boy, whose rise drives the plot of Titus Groan. His escape from the kitchen during the castle celebration of Lord Titus' birth introduces change into the stultified Gormenghast society. Steerpike is Machiavellian in his rise, but he can also appear charming and sometimes even noble.

The Wikipedia plot description doesn't explicitly state that it's an outbuilding, but there seems to be a major plot point involving the burning of the castle library, though this doesn't conclude the novel:

Steerpike prepares meticulously for the act of arson. He arranges for the burning to happen when the entire Groan family and their most important servants are inside the library for a family gathering (Steerpike intentionally failed to tell the twins that they were invited as well, strengthening their feeling of bitterness towards Sepulchrave and Gertrude). He intends to lock the doors to prevent an escape, and then come through the window and save everyone inside from the fire, appearing as a hero and possibly strengthening his position and granting him more power in the castle.

  • Yes, that was what I would have answered if you didn't beat me to it. Commented May 31, 2021 at 16:12
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    Is this really the first story identification question we've had about the Gormenghast novels? I'm surprised.
    – Buzz
    Commented Jun 1, 2021 at 2:36
  • This was my first thought also. For reference, the library in question is somewhat separated from where most of the people in the castle live simply because most of the castle is actually unused and uninhabited, and unless you’re paying close attention to the descriptions of the castle could easily be mistaken for being separate (you even have to go outside to get to it). Commented Jun 1, 2021 at 12:26
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    It's remarkable that these classic books have not yet been the subject of discussion here. The BBC did a remarkable and quite faithful series that tells the stories of "Titus Groan" and "Gormenghast." All the characters are strongly portrayed.
    – Wastrel
    Commented Jun 1, 2021 at 15:21

This sounds to me like the "Gormenghast" series, by Mervyn Peake. The three titles I've read are "Titus Groan", "Gormenghast" and "Titus Alone". The unlikeable character you mention was named Steerpike. There aren't any overtly fantastic elements, but the castle of Gormenghast is unrealistically vast (and watertight, which comes up at one point), and the characters are quite odd, and memorable. It turns out that more volumes were published than the ones I list (which was news to me). Here's a link to the Wikipedia entry: Gormenghast series

  • @KernelPanic You beat me by mere seconds.
    – user888379
    Commented May 31, 2021 at 16:03
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    Good to know that my answer is supported by someone who seems to have actually read the books! My answer was based entirely on Googling, though I'm now intrigued by the atmosphere described and could use a good Gothic read. Commented May 31, 2021 at 16:06
  • I read them many decades ago; I was a teenager and probably missed a lot of what was going on, but the strangeness of the setting, the humor, and the characters made a strong impression. "Titus Alone" was very different tonally, and it didn't click for me.
    – user888379
    Commented May 31, 2021 at 16:12
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    @user888379 "Titus Alone" was an unfinished manuscript - the author died before finishing it - and it shows. Many chapters are clearly incomplete, and the atmosphere (though it would've been different anyway, as the third book isn't set in Gormenghast any more) isn't fully constructed. Still has a few memorable songs though. "Some knit them purl, some knit them plain, some knit their brows of pearl in vain, some are so plain they try again, ..." roared Muzzlehatch.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented May 31, 2021 at 16:43
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    @KernelPanic if you haven't read them, do it now, take my car! They are truly memorable and wonderful in their world-building. From Flay and Prunesquallor to Swelter and Barquentine, the out-dwellers and all. A microcosm in a vast derelict castle of ancient ritual and meaninglessness. Not better or worse than LoTR, simply different.
    – bob1
    Commented Jun 2, 2021 at 2:42

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