Five by Five Books #1: “Engine Summer” by John Crowley (1979)

(Note: This is one of an occasional and ongoing series of reviews of my favorite novels, structured by covering five facets of my reading experiences, each in five sentences. Scroll down to the bottom of this article to see the complete list of books reviewed).

What’s it about? Engine Summer is a post-technological road story about a boy named Rush That Speaks, who comes of age in a maze-like, clan-based community called Little Belaire. The story features a rich, anthropologically-sound depiction of a clan-based culture built around family “cords” and the art of “truthful speaking,” which precludes the possibility of misunderstanding or deception. Rush That Speaks sets out on his coming-of-age journey after his beloved, Once a Day, leaves Little Belaire to join the mysterious Dr. Boots’s List. He hopes that his journey will set him on the path to Sainthood, although his understanding of what this might entail is fragmented at best. The story of Rush That Speaks’ travels through the post-apocalyptic wilderness outside of Little Belaire is interwoven with a narrative conversation between the boy and an Angel, both seeking to better understand the other.

Who wrote it? John Crowley is a novelist, documentary screenwriter and academic, best known in popular literary circles for 1981’s epic Little, Big, for which he won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. An early version of Engine Summer called Learning to Live With It was among Crowley’s first long-form works, though Engine Summer is actually the third book in Crowley’s canon by order of publication. Engine Summer was nominated for the both the British Fantasy Award and the John W. Campbell Award in 1980. Literary critic Harold Bloom has been a champion of Crowley’s works for many years, citing him as one of the 20th Century’s most under-appreciated writers. Crowley is currently a member of the English Department at Yale University.

When and where did I read it? I read Engine Summer in the early 2000s, mostly in our house on Cord Avenue in Latham, New York. I had heard of neither Engine Summer nor John Crowley himself until I read about the book and author in David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels. I was deep into a Philip K. Dick phase at that point, so I  went for a lot of the more “Phildickian” books (e.g. Alfred Bester, Thomas M. Disch, Roger Zelazy) recommended by Pringle before I decided to tackle Engine Summer. I actually picked it up somewhat by default because I finally reached a point where it was one of the few books left on the 100 Best list that the Colonie Town Library stocked and which that I hadn’t already read. The payoff for my wait, though, was immense, and I consider it one of my favorite books to this day.

Why do I like it? Crowley’s successes with language, story-telling, and the creation of a rich and believable world in Engine Summer are almost unparalleled in my experiences as a reader. The story’s pacing is slow and gentle, but that feels like a direct and intentional depiction of a world that is slow and gentle, too . . . until it is not. The conversations between Rush That Speaks and the Angel are artfully done, and it is in this narrative that the book’s climactic reveal unfolds. It was so perfect once it resolved that I literally went back and re-read the book again, and experienced it even more powerfully knowing what was coming. This gorgeous, bittersweet, and haunting book stayed with me in active thought for months after I read it, and I still find myself unexpectedly musing about Engine Summer all these years on, hence this first “Five by Five Books” report.

A five sentence sample text: “Little Belaire is built out outward from a center in the old warren where it began, built outward in interlocking rooms great and small, like a honeycomb, but not regular like a honeycomb. It goes over hills and a stream, and there are stairs and narrow places, and every room is different in size and shape and how you go in and out of it, from big rooms with pillars of log to tiny rooms all glittering with mirrors, and a thousand other kinds, old and changeless at the center and new and constantly changing father out. Path begins at the center and runs in a long spiral through the old warren and the big middle rooms and so on to the outside and out in the aspen grove near Buckle cord’s door on the Afternoon side. There is no other way through Little Belaire to the outside except Path, and no one who wasn’t born in Little Belaire, probably, could ever find his way to the center. Path looks no different from what is not Path: it’s drawn on your feet.”


#1: Engine Summer by John Crowley (1979)

#2: Skin by Kathe Koja (1993)

#3: Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

#4: Titus Groan/Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1946/1950)

#5: The Islanders by Christopher Priest (2011)

#6: The Flounder by Günter Grass (1977)

#7: The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton (1936 to 1974)

#8: Smallcreep’s Day by Peter Currell Brown (1965)

#9: Gog by Andrew Sinclair (1967)

#10: The Vorrh Trilogy by B. Catling (2015 to 2018)

#11: The Maze of Transparencies by Karen An-hwei Lee (2019)


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