Let me start off with two observations. The first is that this book doesn’t scale the heights of masterpieces like The Place of the Lion or The Greater Trumps, that it does not portray so clearly the implacable eruption of supernatural powers into the mundane world and the reaction to them of the worldlings. Rather, like, say Descent into Hell, it shows a world where natural and supernatural coexist and interact, though this book has a more positive resolution.
The second is that it is still absolutely gripping, and in sections quite terrifying. Unlike Lewis, Williams never preaches. His spiritual world is not explicitly Christian or of any religion. If there is any obvious source it is in Neoplatonism, with its panoply of vast, impersonal forces that order the world and to which we are linked, and which interfere in human doings only to restore order. But Williams can therefore be even more powerful, because he deals in pure archetypes, and so one can seriously believe in the spiritual battles which he portrays, because they do not involve the proxies of conventional religious language, but are simply, to rephrase Clauswitz, the continuation of physical war by other means.
So, this book starts grippingly enough with two women walking in a city. It is only at the end of the first chapter that we learn that they are dead. And the image of the City, vast, empty and terrifying to those who separate themselves from order, a vast living supernatural entity to those who align with order, recurs with increasing force until, at the end of the book, it manifests itself to crush the man who has tried to make himself into the king of the world, Rex Mundi.
And that’s all I’ll say about the plot. Williams’ development is masterly. Ideas, like the organic city, are carefully planted long before they are needed, so rather than their being explained to us, as if in a student theologian’s essays, we accumulate knowledge about them naturally as they grow progressively more important. And so at no point do we get that bane of the fantasy / SF genre: the long speech by the grey-bearded elder who tells us the back-story. We work things out with the characters. Which is how it should be in great literature.
In conclusion then, a fine novel, to which a return is mandatory. A good target for those who find Lewis too simplistic or preachy. Williams never treats his audience as less than adult.